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Roll Call

Both Sides Claim Victory in CRS Revision of Tax Report

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call
Van Hollen praised the Congressional Research Service as a “nonpartisan group of professionals.”

Nearly three months after the Congressional Research Service removed from circulation a report that Republicans claimed was biased and methodologically flawed, the agency Thursday released an updated version that reached the same conclusion: There is no correlation between top tax rates and economic growth.

It is a relatively satisfactory ending for the Senate Republican offices that were the most vocal in their admonishments of the report by CRS Analyst Thomas L. Hungerford.

Though the study upholds an economic conclusion that Democrats embrace and Republicans reject, it now includes further explanation of how the analysis was conducted, additional nods to the other side’s stance and some watered-down rhetoric that could deflect further accusations of partisanship.

“Hats off to CRS for hearing out our concerns and agreeing that the report needed to be modified to reach their standards,” said Antonia Ferrier, spokeswoman for Senate Finance ranking member Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah.

The updated report also satisfied Democrats who, led by Ways and Means ranking member Sander M. Levin of Michigan, had pressured the CRS to re-release the study that bolsters their position.

Senior Democrats on the Ways and Means and Budget committees celebrated Thursday by holding a news conference.

“The Congressional Research Service is a nonpartisan group of professionals who [reach] conclusions based on evidence, not on politics,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the House Budget Committee’s top Democrat. “And that’s important ... because they put a stake in the heart of the Republican argument that small increases in marginal tax rates for wealthy individuals somehow hurt economic growth.”

Thursday’s events appear to bring the episode to a close, but the report’s revision, and the reception it received, speak to the CRS’ tenuous status as the nonpartisan research arm of Congress in an increasingly partisan moment for the legislative branch.

CRS spokeswoman Janine D’Addario said the primary reason for withdrawing the report’s was to provide “more extensive documentation and explanation of the methodology underlying the economic analysis.” The updated report, which is two pages longer than the original, does so in a new section on “methodology” and elsewhere throughout the document.

Though she would not comment on what directions Hungerford might have received about revising the study, D’Addario acknowledged that some words and phrases were tweaked.

“CRS is committed to producing objective analysis without advocating particular courses of action,” she said. “Word choice, appropriately qualified assertions, adequate documentation and balanced tone are aspects of that effort.”

The new report, for instance, uses the phrase “high-income tax payers” instead of “millionaires” and “the very rich,” and it replaces “Bush tax cuts” with “Bush-era tax cuts.” It says that “this report attempts to explore whether or not there is any evidence of an association between the top tax rates of the highest income taxpayers and economic growth,” rather than stating “this report attempts to clarify.” It states that “this analysis finds no conclusive evidence” of this association, whereas in the original report Hungerford wrote more forcefully, “there is no conclusive evidence.”

They are small but significant changes in light of the CRS’ history of fighting accusations of bias by expert analysts who, in their outside activities, sometimes find themselves susceptible to scrutiny that began with the 1995 rise of Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga. With his pledge to slash spending on congressional research agencies came somewhat of a chilling effect at the agency.

“Realizing the danger of engaging in pure analysis, [management] tried to push everyone to not just be even-handed but to engage more in a survey of what people think as opposed to an analysis of what the options are,” said Daniel Schuman, a former CRS attorney and now the policy counsel at The Sunlight Foundation.

And there is also the challenge for the CRS, as an agency trying to do nonpartisan work for a partisan Congress, to avoid becoming embroiled in political infighting that continued Thursday.

“House Democrats are doing a bizarre victory dance with this report,” Ferrier said in a statement to reporters.

In a separate email to CQ Roll Call, Ferrier continued, saying it was, “disheartening ... that a simple conversation between staff and CRS about their economic analysis was turned into a political football by Democrats.”

Democrats, meanwhile, have consistently accused Republicans of trying to cover up a report that had findings they didn’t agree with. At Thursday’s news conference, incoming House Democratic Caucus Vice Chairman Joseph Crowley of New York said the CRS, in standing up against political pressure, was “brave.”

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