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Emails Reveal GOP Concerns About Withdrawn CRS Tax Rate Report

Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Levin has been insistent in asking the Congressional Research Service to respond to accusations of caving to Republican pressure.

Democrats still want to know why the Congressional Research Service withdrew a report that found no correlation between top tax rates and economic growth. Their suspicion that it might have been because of Republican political pressure is being piqued by internal correspondence between CRS officials and senior GOP aides.

A series of email exchanges from Sept. 25 and Sept. 26 obtained by Roll Call reveals displeasure among staffers for Senate Finance ranking Republican Orrin G. Hatch of Utah and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

The CRS report, written by public finance specialist Thomas L. Hungerford, drew conclusions that align with mainstream Democratic tax policy but don’t match up with standard Republican economic theory.

According to Hatch’s chief economist, Jeff Wrase, Hungerford’s conclusions were not unexpected. “It remains the case that, given analytical and methodological preferences and tendencies toward particular theoretical and empirical results in the tax policy and macroeconomic areas, the Ranking Member of the Finance Committee is not entirely comfortable relying on CRS analyses of those areas,” Wrase wrote on Sept. 25 to McConnell aide Jon Lieber and Finance Committee Republican Staff Director Chris Campbell. “This is especially true when there appear to be differences in the messages from the CRS reports and the conclusions of Congress’s tax and budget scorers,” he added.

On Sept. 26, Lieber laid out more specific concerns about Hungerford’s report in an email to a senior CRS official. The report’s findings are derived from unsound methodology, Lieber argued, adding that individuals with partisan agendas were using the findings to bolster their own positions.

In a recent column, for instance, Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus “relie[d] extensively on the not well established conclusions from the Hungerford analysis  . . .  to support conclusions that don’t tell a complete story,” Lieber wrote to the CRS official.

“This makes our point that this flawed and incomplete analysis is being misused by partisans,” he continued. “To be clear — it is my view that this paper is so fundamentally flawed that a retraction should be considered.”

Out of Circulation

Republican staffers have repeatedly denied that they explicitly asked for the report to be withdrawn, saying only that they flagged the report as problematic and made their opinions public.

“Expressing a view that a retraction should be considered is a far cry from demanding the report be taken down, as some have claimed,” McConnell spokesman Don Stewart said Tuesday. The final email in the series of exchanges obtained by Roll Call suggests that even if no one was making flat-out demands, at the very least, the agency’s management was perhaps reading something to that effect between the lines.

“I suggest we make an appointment with Jon, Mark and Jeff,” the high-ranking CRS employee wrote to an agency colleague regarding the Hatch and McConnell staffers. “Now they are asking for the report to come down.”

The report, first made available to Congress on Sept. 14, was taken out of circulation Sept. 28.

CRS spokeswoman Janine D’Addario said that while she could not get into specifics, the report was being reviewed for updates and the intention was to repost it on the CRS internal website at some point in the future.

However, Democrats in both chambers are continuing to monitor a situation they fear could compromise the Library of Congress-affiliated agency’s reputation as the nonpartisan research arm of Congress.

House Ways and Means ranking Democrat Sander M. Levin of Michigan has been particularly insistent in asking the CRS to respond to accusations of caving to political pressure.

CRS Director Mary B. Mazanec, in a letter she wrote to Levin on Nov. 16 that Levin spokesman Josh Drobnyk circulated on Monday, wouldn’t say whether congressional offices had asked the agency to take down the report, stressing that “confidentiality is one of our core values.”

As for whether political pressure entered into the equation, she added that the “CRS has never withdrawn a report solely at the direction of a member or staff of a congressional office. We weigh carefully comments from our clients concerning our products but the decision to revise a report or withdraw it  . . .  is ours alone.”

Rep. Michael M. Honda of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee, is also paying attention.

In a statement, he said his panel “should look for ways to further shield  . . .  agencies like the CRS, [Government Accountability Office] and [Congressional Budget Office] from undue political pressure.”

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