Congress

Public to get rare look inside the Congressional Research Service, with attrition, morale points of contention

Former employees knock management as stifling quality work, innovation

Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., center, chairs the House Administration Committee, which will hold a rare public examination into the Congressional Research Service. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Clarified 3:05 p.m. | Thursday’s House Administration Committee oversight hearing into the Congressional Research Service is the first in more than a decade — and is long overdue, according to former employees who say the agency is mismanaged, stifles expert research and results in a lesser work product.

The hearing will examine increasing attrition rates, low employee morale and a lack of diversity at the agency, among other issues, according to a committee spokesperson. Since 1914, the Congressional Research Service, or CRS, has provided expert policy and legal analysis to staff, members and committees in the legislative branch.

CRS bills itself as having a reputation for analysis that is authoritative, confidential, objective and nonpartisan. But accounts from former employees — and the rare, impending oversight hearing — show that Congress is now taking note of internal shortcomings. The House Administration Committee has not held a hearing specifically dedicated to CRS oversight for at least 12 years, according to the committee spokesperson.

Former CRS employees, including several from the American Law Division, recount a culture of fear from political backlash that resulted in management not allowing the policy experts to make authoritative conclusions on politically charged topics like climate change.

The lawyers and academics who were once lured by the mission of writing policy and legal analysis to help inform the legislative branch have become discouraged by management’s reluctance to defend employees’ work.

CRS declined to provide turnover numbers for the American Law Division or any workforce turnover statistics.

“I am proud of the outstanding work we have done. I look forward to sharing our story with the committee this week,” CRS Director Mary Mazanec said in a statement. 

Mazanec was appointed director in 2011 and will testify on Thursday. In 2012, The New York Times reported that the CRS withdrew an economic report after Senate Republicans took issue with its findings and wording. The decision was made against the advice of the agency’s economic team leadership, the Times also reported.

Andie Wyatt worked at CRS from 2015 to 2018 as a legislative attorney in the American Law Division, with a focus on environmental law. She said there was a culture of management avoiding pushback at all costs without any accounting for whether the pushback was accurate.

“From the perspective of an attorney working on climate matters in 2017 and 2018, there was a lot of pressure not to imply too directly that the Trump administration, and Republican position against climate science, was wrong,” Wyatt said. She added that clear statements about climate risks and science were “watered down” either in the editing process or preemptively by authors who anticipated their language would be diluted.

Wyatt was so concerned with the way CRS was operating that she wrote a letter to Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden and Mazanec in January of 2018. She wrote that in some areas with high potential for political controversy, CRS operates as a neutral compiler of facts and opinions, which is light on expert analysis. Unsatisfied with management’s response, Wyatt left CRS a few months later.

Stephen Dagadakis, a CRS spokesman, said in a statement that “CRS is committed to providing Congress with research and analysis of the highest quality. We address the full range of issues before Congress, including topics that are controversial, and believe the work stands for itself.”

Employee attrition is an area the committee plans to cover, one that CRS has been struggling with for some time, according to former employees.

“A culture of mismanagement has led many experienced analysts to leave the agency and had a negative impact on CRS’s service to Congress,” said Jody Feder, a CRS legislative attorney who worked in the American Law Division from 2002 to 2017.

Daniel Schuman, a policy director for Demand Progress, worked as a legislative attorney in the American Law Division from 2006 to 2007. Schuman said he started at CRS in a group of four attorneys, three of whom were gone within a two-year span. He said the turnover issues are hurting CRS’s ability to provide nonpartisan expert advice because employees are not staying at CRS long enough to build up that expertise.

“You take any CRS analyst out for a drink and they’re going to bend your ear. It’s generally not a happy place,” Schuman said.

Dagadakis cited a recent survey regarding employee engagement and morale that appears to reflect an increase in employee morale; however, CRS declined to provide that survey.

“In the most recent Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, staff reported increased satisfaction in 94 percent of workplace questions compared to the 2016 survey. In over half those responses, the satisfaction level was higher than the overall federal government rating,” Dagadakis said in a statement. 

Kevin Kosar, a vice president of policy at R Street Institute who used to work as a CRS researcher from 2003 to 2014, estimates that in the American Law Division, at least 15 percent of the workforce has turned over each of the past four years.

“If you have high turnover amongst that core, it’s going to have a negative effect on service,” Kosar said. 

Vivian Chu, a legislative attorney in the American Law Division who worked at CRS from 2008 to 2016, said the agency’s “toxic leadership” made her leave. This included watching management push people out and tell expert attorneys that their work product was not sufficient, Chu said.

“There was a feeling that leadership didn’t have the backs of our analysts,” Chu said.

“You don’t just have a high turnover rate of young and old attorneys for no reason,” she said.

Clarification: An earlier version of this story should have stated that Kevin Kosar’s claim of 15 percent turnover in the CRS’ American Law Division was per year.

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