What is the Congressional Research Service?

Henry Gaudet

The Congressional Research Service is a nonpartisan agency within the United States government's legislative branch, providing information on current or growing issues of national interest for congressional members and committees. Armed with detailed, accurate and objective information, lawmakers are better equipped to make rational decisions with the best chance of success. Information provided by the Congressional Research Service is used at every stage of legislation, starting with the initial conceptual phase preceding the first draft of a bill, through hearings and debate and even during oversight and analysis of existing legislation.

The Congressional Research Service provides information to congressional committees and members.
The Congressional Research Service provides information to congressional committees and members.

In 1914, two congressmen from Wisconsin, Senator Robert LaFollette and Representative John M. Nelson, put forward legislation calling a research branch of the Library of Congress to provide information requested by members of Congress. This proposal was based on the successes of similar initiatives of the New York and Wisconsin State Libraries. Under the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946, this branch was named the Legislative Reference Service and was charged with fact checking, researching and analyzing documents and publications created by government organizations as well as the private sector.

With the passing of the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970, the Legislative Reference Service was renamed the Congressional Research Service. A shift in emphasis came with the name. Under the Act, an emphasis was placed on analysis and research directly related to the legislative process. The act also called for high levels of cooperation with the Congressional Budget Office and the Government Accountability Office.

Reports from the Congressional Research Service are produced with a set of core principles in mind. These principles — confidentiality, timeliness, accuracy, objectivity and balance — ensure that the reports are reliable sources of information, not partisan tools. Policy recommendations are not included in these reports, and every effort is made to remain above party politics. For instance, under normal circumstances, Congressional Research Service resources are not used to investigate seated or former members of Congress.

Despite repeated calls for so-called “sunshine laws” over the years, reports produced by the Congressional Research Service are not openly available to the public. Members of the public interested in reading one of these reports usually have to submit a request to a member of Congress for that specific report. In some cases, previously released reports might be available from another source, such as sale from a private vendor or as an online posting. Many reports contain confidential information and are not available to the general public.

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