Tax Analysts Blog

Muzzling CRS is a Bad Idea -- Even for Republicans

Posted on Nov 2, 2012

Everyone likes a fan and no one likes a critic. Which is why the Congressional Research Service finds itself in hot water these days.

The story begins in mid-September, when CRS – a division of the Library of Congress providing research support to lawmakers – released a study on the economic effects of cutting tax rates for the rich.

The results were not happy ones, at least for Republicans. “There is not conclusive evidence,” the report concluded, “to substantiate a clear relationship between the 65-year steady reduction in the top tax rates and economic growth.” Tax cuts, in other words, haven't been a sure-fire recipe for prosperity.

Almost immediately, conservatives objected that the study was politically biased and analytically flawed. Republican lawmakers complained directly to CRS, and by the end of the month, the agency had decided to withdraw it.

It may be true, as Republican congressional staffers have insisted, that CRS withdrew the report “on its own volition.” But that leaves open the distinct possibility that CRS officials withdrew the report not because they believed it was flawed, but because they were scared.

If so, it’s understandable. The dust-up over the tax rate report is just part of a larger campaign to challenge the objectivity of CRS studies. “The CRS is supposed to provide expert, objective, non-partisan research analysis to Congress,” contended Curtis Dubay of the Heritage Foundation after the initial release of the tax rate report. “Most of the time, the CRS performs this function admirably and diligently; the longstanding episodic exception has been in tax policy.”

The Wall Street Journal was even more direct – and threatening – in its discussion of the tax rate report. “We're not sure why Congress needs a research operation when it already has a budget office, a tax committee and thousands of staff,” the paper wrote in an editorial. “But it surely doesn't need one that acts like an arm of the Democratic Party.”

Such criticism is predictable but not fair. Taken as a whole, CRS reports on tax policy do tend to find more fans on the left than the right. As a group, they are relatively tolerant of controversial revenue tools (like the corporate income tax or capital gains levies). And they find things to like in compensatory fiscal policy, like the Obama stimulus. Most problematically, they reveal a persistent skepticism about the utility of many tax cuts.

Liberals, of course, find these conclusions congenial. But that doesn’t mean the reports are wrong, or even politically biased. You can’t judge the quality of policy research by its fans. Or, for that matter, by its critics.

As a group, the CRS reports fall comfortably within the mainstream of academic research on tax policy. Which is not to say there isn’t room for reasonable people to disagree about their conclusions. Lots of reputable economists, for instance, think the growth effects of tax cuts are overrated, but lots of their equally reputable colleagues disagree.

The issue, ultimately, is how you deal with these disagreements. What you don’t do is try to muzzle (directly or indirectly ) the voices you find inconvenient. If nothing else, that effort is self-defeating. Forcing CRS to pull the tax rate report merely guaranteed it another 15 minutes of fame.

Worse, if you impose ideological constraints on a research agency, you’ll end up with a series of anodyne studies that no one reads, no one trusts, and no one cares about. That's almost the definition of a worthless agency.

Ultimately, lawmakers in Congress have to make a choice: they can either hire people to tell them the truth, or they can hire people to tell them what they want to hear. They have plenty of the latter already on the payroll. Let’s hope they keep a few of the former around, too.

Read Comments (2)

David BrunoriNov 3, 2012

My friend and colleague Joe Thorndike is right that muzzling the CRS report guaranteed that someone would actually read it. But he did not address the primary objection to the report --- that it was biased. Academics get to shape their research to reinforce their ideological agendas. Government employees do not. And let's not forget that the author of the report purportedly was a big
donor to the folks who benefited from his research.

Stuart LevineNov 4, 2012

I don't know a great deal about the internal procedures at the CRS, but I'm
willing to bet that the fact that the author of the CRS report in question was
a "big donor" to "the folks who benefited from his research" (presumably,
Democrats) is meaningless. The reason is that I suspect that there is a
significant review process with respect to any report. That process likely
filters out any bias.

The problem here is like the problem with poll analysis, Bureau of Labor
Statistics reports, climate change analysis, etc.--the Republican Party
dislikes facts.

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