As appropriators work to keep spending for the legislative branch stagnant, the flat funding could have an adverse effect on an agency that affects virtually every office and committee: the Congressional Research Service.
"CRS is here to help Members and their staffs with the information and analysis that they need," CRS spokesman Ellis Brachman wrote in an email to CQ Roll Call. "We are committed to doing that as thoroughly and efficiently as possible with the resources Congress provides.” However, the CRS will have to make adjustments to comply with the funding level. Like other legislative branch agencies, the CRS has experienced funding and staffing cuts in recent years, as lawmakers worked to set an example of austerity in their own branch's budget. But the CRS has shuffled staffers so the agency can still meet the needs of Congress.
"While we are thinner than we would like in some areas, we are constantly monitoring our staffing across the service to ensure that we have the skill sets and expertise needed to support Congress," CRS Director Mary B. Mazanec said in her prepared statement at a March 17 Senate Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee hearing.
But the service could get even thinner. On April 23, the House Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee approved a spending bill for fiscal 2016 that allocated the same amount of funds to the CRS as 2015, amounting to nearly $107 million. The allocation was $5 million less than the agency's funding request.
The flat funding means the CRS will not be able to hire the six health experts the agency requested. At the Senate hearing in March, Mazanec made the case for these staffers, arguing its health care experts are stretched thin as demands for information, particularly regarding changes to health policy, such as the Affordable Care Act, have increased.
"That increase in demand and complexity [of health care policy] is putting real pressure on CRS health experts, some of whom are shouldering two to three times the average number of requests as other CRS staff," Mazanec said in her prepared testimony.
Though the Senate subcommittee has yet to release its appropriations bill, it seems likely that the bill will also not include an increase in the CRS' funding.
“I think that they laid out their case for hiring more people in health care," Senate Legislative Branch Subcommittee Chairwoman Shelley Moore Capito said on April 23. "I think the alternate case, too, would be, 'Well, there’s got to be other areas that you’re not doing as much research in, so is there any way to rebalance?'"
"I don’t know," the West Virginia Republican added. "We’re pretty much operating under the premise that it’s going to be pretty flat funding, so we’ll just see what we do with CRS."
Capito asked Mazanec at the March hearing whether the CRS would be able to shift other researchers around to meet the demand for health care. Again, Mazanec said, the service is already stretched.
"In the last five years, and that's about my tenure at CRS, our staffing numbers have come down. And, we have looked at portfolios as people have retired and left CRS, we have reassigned issue areas and we're spread very thin," Mazanec said. "Especially in the health care area. It's received the highest volume of requests across the service. It receives about 10 percent of our targeted inquiries."
Mazanec, who has a doctorate in medicine and a law degree, also said it might be difficult for the service to shift researchers around to the health care area. "It requires academic study and professional experience that we don't sufficiently have," Mazanec said. "There is a certain expertise that has to come in through the door."
According to the CRS, in addition to not being able to hire additional health care experts, the flat funding will also mean the service will have to "modestly" reduce staffing levels to meet mandatory pay and price changes. Even a modest decrease could affect how quickly the service responds to requests.
Over the past five years, the service has experienced a nearly 7 percent decrease in staff. In 2010, the service had 659 staffers. The staff level reached a low of 602 in 2013 but climbed to 615 today, thanks to a $1 million increase in funding for fiscal 2015.
Of those roughly 600 staffers, 70 percent work in research divisions, which cover U.S. law, domestic social policy, foreign policy, defense, trade, finance, and science and industry.
Those 421 researchers answered 61,000 individual requests for research in 2014. That breaks down to 167 requests each day of the year. Also in 2014, the agency's 100th year serving Congress, researchers worked with every member of Congress and every congressional committee.
Lawmakers do agree the CRS is a vital resource, and they are appreciative of researchers' work. But they also face the challenge of allocating funds for various agencies. The Legislative Branch Appropriations bill is the smallest of the appropriations bills, but also covers House operations, the U.S. Capitol Police and the Architect of the Capitol.
"The overall budget allocation for the legislative branch bill is essentially flat funded compared to last year," House Appropriations Committee spokesperson Jennifer Hing wrote in an email to CQ Roll Call. "Therefore, most of the agencies within the bill are also level-funded."
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