If you're tired of looking for well-reasoned, unbiased assessments of government policy proposals, I have a list that can help. A few weeks ago, I discussed where reporters and analysts could find some statistical tools to help put contemporary data into proper context. Today I would like to discuss where people could find competent analyses of current policy issues that I rely upon heavily in my own work.
Congressional Research Service. For me, the gold standard for public policy analysis is the CRS, an arm of Congress affiliated with the Library of Congress. According to a history of the service, it was established in 1914, made permanent in 1946 and expanded in 1970. It has a staff of about 700 people and an annual budget of over $100 million.
Its stock-in-trade is a report on some topical subject in the news. Sometimes it is requested by congressional committees or offices. More often, they appear to be self-generated by CRS specialists, many of whom are the leading experts in their fields.
It’s a source of annoyance to many people, including myself, that these reports are not automatically made public when published. Members of Congress retain the exclusive right to release them themselves, although there is no restriction on posting or reprinting them afterwards. The Federation of American Scientists makes an aggressive effort to post all of them, but I know from experience that many are missed. Worse, since there is no public catalogue, one doesn’t even know whether one exists or not so that it could be requested from a member of Congress.
I have always found CRS reports to be absolutely authoritative, trustworthy, reliable, well written and documented. This may explain why Republicans reacted so negatively when a recent CRS report undermined a key tenet of their dogma – that the top income tax rate is the single most important determinant of economic growth. A Nov. 1, 2012 Wall Street Journal editorial even suggested that the CRS be abolished for this heresy.
There are many other ways as well that I know from personal experience how deep the CRS’s institutional knowledge is and how essential it is to competent lawmaking. For example, anyone interested in the subject of tax expenditures would be well advised to download its periodic report for the Senate Budget Committee that analyses all of them and the vast academic literature on their effectiveness or lack thereof.
Congressional Budget Office. Before the CBO was created by the Budget Act of 1974, Congress was totally dependent on the White House’s Office of Management and Budget for simple budget data. If Congress wanted to know the budgetary cost of some proposal, OMB was the only source and presidents used this monopoly on information very jealously, greatly increasing their power over the budget, especially when impoundment of funds was possible.
When the Budget Act was written, Congress was determined to have an independent source of budget data and CBO was created for that purpose. It has about 220 staff and issues reports on budget issues and pending bills before Congress on a daily basis. Judging by the frequency of references to CBO data in economic journals and reports from Wall Street economists, its projections and estimates are considered the best available, anywhere.
This is not to say that CBO never makes mistakes. But its mistakes are largely those of the economics profession as a whole, not the result of bias or institutional error. It is a sad fact of life that the economics profession has much to answer for in failing to anticipate, understand or respond as well as it should have to the economic crises of recent years. Although some individual economists deserve accolades for being consistently right, it is unfortunately a fact of life that economists must speak with close to a single voice if they are to be effective on policy.
I think CBO considers it a source of pride when it is criticized by both Republicans and Democrats. Lately, the agency has earned White House ire for a report it issued on the minimum wage. More often, Republicans tend to be most critical of CBO budget scores, with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich even calling for the agency’s abolition. But more recently, some Republicans have found favor in analyses that support their point of view.
U.S. Government Accountability Office. Formerly known as the General Accounting Office, it was established by the Budget and Accounting Act of 1921, which established the presidential budget process. Before that, the budget was a purely ad hoc system with little central control. The role of the GAO was to audit the government’s books, but after World War II became increasingly involved in policy evaluation and effectiveness research as well.
The GAO is a huge agency with almost 3,000 employees and is part of the legislative branch, which guarantees its independence when investigating the executive branch. It has a budget of just over $500 million and claims budget savings of over $50 billion per year from its recommendations. The GAO also has an important legal role in the government contracting process.
As with the CRS and CBO, Republicans have mostly been in the forefront of criticizing G.A.O. reports, leading them to slash its budget. Ironically, this led Sen. Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma and one of the Senate’s most conservative members, to issue a report defending the GAO as a guardian of the public purse.
The principal defect of G.A.O. reports is that they tend to be highly technical and very narrowly specific. They are not really written for public consumption, but more for the benefit of those running the programs they target. They are more akin to the studies management consultants write for corporate clients than the sorts of analyses the general public would find of value.
However, as noted, a significant number of GAO studies deal with general policy and budget issues. Its search engine is pretty good and each report usually has a non-technical summary that highlights the relevant findings. Its long-term budget projections should be better known.
In future posts, I will discuss other governmental, academic and private organizations that I believe are trustworthy sources of policy analysis – and a few that should mostly be avoided as well.
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