The Congressional Research Service and the American Legislative Process

The Congressional Research Service and
the American Legislative Process
Updated March 19, 2008
Ida A. Brudnick
Analyst on the Congress
Government and Finance Division

The Congressional Research Service and
the American Legislative Process
The Library of Congress, as its name suggests, is a library dedicated to serving
the United States Congress and its Members. It serves additionally as an unexcelled
national library. The Library was located in the Capitol Building with the House of
Representatives and the Senate until 1897, and its collections always have been
available for use by Congress. Building upon a concept developed by the New York
State Library and then the Wisconsin legislative reference department, Wisconsin’s
Senator Robert LaFollette and Representative John M. Nelson led an effort to direct
the establishment of a special reference unit within the Library in 1914. Later known
as the Legislative Reference Service, it was charged with responding to congressional
requests for information. For more than 50 years, this department assisted Congress
primarily by providing facts and publications and by transmitting research and
analysis done largely by other government agencies, private organizations, and
individual scholars. In 1970, Congress enacted a law transforming the Legislative
Reference Service into the Congressional Research Service (CRS) and directing CRS
to devote more of its efforts and increased resources to performing research and
analysis that assists Congress in direct support of the legislative process.
Joined today by two other congressional support agencies, including the
Congressional Budget Office and the Government Accountability Office, the
Congressional Research Service offers research and analysis to Congress on all
current and emerging issues of national policy. CRS analysts work exclusively for
Congress, providing assistance in the form of reports, memoranda, customized
briefings, seminars, videotaped presentations, information obtained from automated
data bases, and consultations in person and by telephone. This work is governed by
requirements for confidentiality, timeliness, accuracy, objectivity, balance, and
nonpartisanship. This report will be updated as circumstances warrant.

In troduction ......................................................1
Supporting a System of Shared Powers.................................3
Nonpartisan Support for a Partisan Institution............................5
Serving All the Members of Congress..................................6
Support Throughout the Legislative Process.............................7
Conclusion ......................................................10

The Congressional Research Service and
the American Legislative Process
The Library of Congress, as its name suggests, is a library dedicated to serving
the United States Congress and its Members.1 It serves additionally as an unexcelled
national library. The Library was located in the Capitol Building with the House of
Representatives and the Senate until 1897, and its collections always have been
available for use by Congress.
In 1914, Senator Robert LaFollette and Representative John M. Nelson, both of
Wisconsin, promoted the inclusion in the legislative, executive, and judicial
appropriations act of a provision directing the establishment of a special reference
unit within the Library.2 Building upon a concept developed by the New York State
Library in 1890, and the Wisconsin legislative reference department in 1901, they
were motivated by progressive era ideas about the importance of the acquisition of
knowledge for an informed and independent legislature. The move also reflected the
expanding role of the librarian and the professionalization of the profession. The
new department was charged with responding to congressional requests for
information. Renamed as the Legislative Reference Service and given a permanent
authorization with the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946, it assisted Congress
primarily by providing facts and publications and by transmitting research and
analysis done largely by other government agencies, private organizations, and
individual scholars.3
In 1970, Congress passed legislation transforming the Legislative Reference
Service into the Congressional Research Service (CRS) and directing CRS to devote
more of its efforts and increased resources to doing research and analysis that assists4
Congress in direct support of the legislative process. Today, CRS is joined by two
other congressional support agencies. The Congressional Budget Office provides
Congress with budget-related information, reports on fiscal, budgetary, and
programmatic issues, and analyses of budget policy options, costs, and effects. The
Government Accountability Office assists Congress in reviewing and monitoring the
activities of government by conducting independent audits, investigations, and

1 This report was originally written by Stanley Bach, formerly a Senior Specialist in the
Legislative Process at CRS, who has since retired. The listed author has updated the report
and is available to answer questions concerning its contents.
2 ch. 141, July 16, 1914.
3 ch. 753, title II, sec. 203, August 2, 1946, 60 Stat. 836
4 P.L. 91-510, title III, sec. 321(a), October 26, 1970, 84 Stat. 1181; 2 U.S.C. 166.

evaluations of federal programs.5 Collectively, the three support agencies employ
more than 4,000 people, giving the Congress access to information and analysis
unequaled by any other national legislature.
CRS offers research and analysis to Congress on all current and emerging issues
of national policy. Its staff of approximately 700 employees includes lawyers,
economists, reference librarians, and social, natural, and physical scientists. Funded
through the annual Legislative Branch Appropriations Acts, in FY2008 CRS was
provided with approximately $102 million in budget authority.6 Congressional
responses take the form of reports, memoranda, customized briefings, seminars,
videotaped presentations, information obtained from automated databases, and
consultations in person and by telephone.
In all its work, CRS analysts are governed by requirements for confidentiality,
timeliness, accuracy, objectivity, balance, and nonpartisanship. CRS makes no
legislative or other policy recommendations to Congress; its responsibility is to
ensure that Members of the House and Senate have available the best possible
information and analysis on which to base the policy decisions the American people
have elected them to make.
CRS is unique because its time and efforts are devoted to working exclusively
for Congress. Only Members and their staffs can place requests and attend most
seminars. While some CRS research and reports may reach the American public,
dissemination is at the discretion of congressional clients.
CRS is part of a much larger congressional staff community numbering
approximately 30,000 people. In addition to the staff of the other research support
agencies and other support offices like the Library of Congress, the Government
Printing Office, and the Architect of the Capitol, almost 6,700 people are employed
by the U.S. Senate, while approximately 10,700 are employed by the U.S. House of
Representatives.7 Each Representative has as many as 18 full-time employees;
Senators’ staffs are larger and vary in size according to the populations of the states
they represent. In addition, professional and clerical employees serve the committees
and subcommittees in each house, while other staff members are employed by the
congressional party leaders of the House and Senate, joint committees of the two
houses, and the administrative officers of each house of Congress.

5 For more information on this agency, see CRS Report RL30349, GAO: Government
Accountability Office and General Accounting Office, by Frederick M. Kaiser.
6 For additional information on the funding of the legislative branch, see CRS Report
RL34031, Legislative Branch: FY2008 Appropriations, by Ida A. Brudnick.
7 Figures obtained from: U.S. Office of Personnel Management, Federal Employment
Statistics Report, September 2007, Table 9, Federal Civilian Employment and Payroll (in
thousands of dollars) by Branch, Selected Agency, and Area, available online at

Supporting a System of Shared Powers
The staff of the U.S. Congress is much larger than in any other national
legislature and is a consequence of the underlying nature of the American political
system. In parliamentary systems, the “government,” in the form of the Prime
Minister and the Cabinet, and the legislature (or at least its “lower house”) typically
are controlled by the same party or coalition of parties. The lower house, such as the
House of Commons in Canada or Great Britain, selects the Prime Minister who also
is a member of the parliament and the leader of the dominant party. The Prime
Minister’s legislative program dominates the parliament’s agenda, and new
legislative elections may be necessary if it rejects a major government proposal for
legislation. Normally, therefore, there is a collaborative relationship between the
majority party or coalition in the parliament and the political leaders of the
government ministries. When there is conflict between them, it is generally not
because of the organization of government, but despite it.
Under the Constitution of the United States, by contrast, the powers of the
federal government are distributed in a way that is intended and almost guaranteed
to create competition and conflict between the legislative and executive branches.
It has been said that the U.S. system of government is characterized by a separation
of powers; in fact, however, it is a system of separate institutions sharing powers.
This arrangement has led to a shifting balance of power between the two branches,
as well as occasional conflicts with the Supreme Court, during more than 200 years
of experience under the Constitution. During some periods, Congress exerted more
influence over national policy than the President; at other times, the situation has
been reversed.
The executive and legislative branches are distinctly separate institutions. In
contrast to parliamentary systems, for example, Members of Congress may not hold
positions of authority in the executive branch. Congress normally plays no part in
selecting the President or Vice President, nor may it remove either of them from
office only because of disagreements about policy. The Vice President does serve
as President of the Senate, but the formal power of that position is very limited.
Further, the President may not remove Members of Congress nor is there any
provision for early dissolution of a Congress by the executive.
Representatives, Senators, and the President all serve for fixed terms and for
different periods of time. Even when a President wins an overwhelming election
victory, therefore, he still finds that two-thirds of the Senators had been elected two
or four years earlier, and that all Representatives will run for re-election two years
later when the President is not a candidate. One possible result is that a President of
one political party may confront one or both houses of Congress controlled by the
other party. In fact this situation has prevailed in most years since the end of World
War II. In this circumstance, the competition between separated institutions is made
even more intense by the added dimension of competition between the different
political parties controlling them.
Yet these separated institutions are linked by their shared powers. For example,
Congress has the primary legislative power under the Constitution. The President

may recommend any legislation he thinks desirable, but Congress is under no
obligation to act on, much less approve, his proposals, though they usually do receive
respectful and careful study. On the other hand, the President does have the
constitutional power to disapprove (or veto) any bill approved by Congress, in which
case it can become law only if approved again by two-thirds votes in both houses.
So the legislative power is shared, and the threat of a presidential veto usually gives
him great influence over Congress’s legislative decisions.
Presidential powers also are shared. For instance, the President has the
constitutional authority to nominate senior officers of the executive branch and all
federal judges and justices and to negotiate treaties with other nations. The Senate
must agree, however, by majority vote to each of his nominations, and no treaty can
take effect unless the Senate approves it by a two-thirds vote. The President also is
Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, but Congress passes legislation controlling
the size, composition, and budget of the military. In short, if either branch of
government is to fulfill its constitutional responsibilities effectively, it needs the
cooperation, or at least the acquiescence, of the other.
The reason for this system of shared powers lies in both an historic mistrust of
government power and a concern over the efficient administration of the law. The
authors of the Constitution had experience with excessive power in the hands of
executive officials (the British king and his ministers), but they also feared that an
uncontrolled legislative majority also might be liable to abuse its power. The best
way to protect against abuses of power, they concluded, was to divide it among
officials of different institutions, giving these officials an incentive to restrain each
other in their own self-interest. The authors’ experience with the ineffective Articles
of Confederation also convinced them of the need for a strong apparatus to
administer the law, a responsibility they saw better vested in an executive body than
the legislature.
In this way, a system of “checks and balances” prevents any single institution
of government from becoming too powerful. Although sharing powers between
different institutions can create obstacles and cause delays for the government in
making decisions, having a government that its citizens can control and hold
accountable was preferred in 1787, when the Constitution was written, to having one
effectively controlled by either the executive or the legislative branch. And although
circumstances have changed dramatically since then, the fundamental framework of
government under the Constitution remains unchanged today.
In order for the sharing of power to protect against the abuse of power, more is
required than the words of the Constitution. Each branch of government must be
able to protect its independence and assert its power effectively. In its continuing
effort to preserve its constitutional authority and independence, Congress can suffer
from an important competitive disadvantage: it often possesses less information and
knowledge than the executive branch, which has more than 2.6 million employees.8

8 Figure obtained from U.S. Office of Personnel Management, Federal Employment
Statistics Report, September 2007, Table 9, Federal Civilian Employment and Payroll (in

If the executive branch could control what Congress knows, it might largely nullify
Congress’s independent exercise of its powers and its ability to oversee the exercise
of executive powers. While Congress would remain independent of the executive
branch in theory, it could become its captive in practice. This is an important reason
why Congress has created permanent committees of the House and Senate with
responsibility for studying issues, recommending legislation, and conducting
oversight on the subjects assigned to them. In this way, Congress develops policy
expertise among its own members and the staffs of its committees.
For the same reason, Congress created its three support agencies, including
CRS, which are not subject to executive branch direction and which assure Congress
of its own expert and independent assessments of national and international events
and condition, its own studies of existing laws and programs, and its own analyses
of the options for change.
Nonpartisan Support for a Partisan Institution
There is another respect in which the mandate of CRS reflects the nature of U.S.
political institutions and the party system: although the House and Senate are
organized by the Democratic and Republican parties and nearly all Members of
Congress are affiliated with one party or the other, CRS is a nonpartisan institution.
Its purpose is to inform, not to persuade.
Members’ party affiliations remain the single best basis for predicting how they
will vote, and congressional party leaders have a profound effect on how the House
and Senate conduct their legislative business. Although Congress historically has not
experienced highly cohesive party voting, particularly in comparison with voting in
the parliaments in which members are elected from party lists under a system of
proportional representation, “partisan differentiation is still substantial ... [and] strict
party votes always organize the House, and party unity votes are increasingly
common (and often increasingly sharply dividing the two parties) on a wide range of
substantive and procedural votes.”9 Despite these recent trends in partisanship, the
Democratic and Republican parties continue to encompass diverse interests, a fact
for which observers have credited both the national history and the rules of the U.S.
electoral system for the operation of the current party system. This diversity has
expanded the role of CRS as a nonpartisan source of research.
There cannot be a governing coalition of parties in the United States. The
existence of a single, powerful, elective presidency encourages disparate factions and
interests to coalesce into two parties at the national level. Historically, third parties
have had great difficulty attracting and then maintaining widespread support in

8 (...continued)
thousands of dollars) by Branch, Selected Agency, and Area, available at
9 John H. Aldrich and David W. Rohde, “The Transition to Republican Rule in the House:
Implications for Theories of Congressional Politics,” Political Science Quarterly, vol. 112,
no. 4 (Winter 1997), pp. 541-567, at pp. 545-546.

federal elections because they usually have had a narrow ideological focus and
geographical base, and so have had no real hope of winning the single most visible
and valuable prize of American political competition, the presidency. The result has
been two parties with different centers of political gravity but with overlapping
national constituencies in presidential elections.
In congressional elections, candidates run for the House of Representatives in
435 separate single member districts and for the Senate in 50 different states.10 The
constituencies are geographically, economically, and socially diverse. This electoral
system, in which each House constituency elects only one legislator, and in which
only one candidate can win each election, also encourages two-party competition at
the state and local level, in contrast to systems in which legislators are elected by
proportional representation from party lists. It is in this environment that CRS exists
to serve as a source of nonpartisan analysis and information.
Serving All the Members of Congress
In addition to serving the committees and party leaders of the House and Senate,
CRS responds to requests for assistance from all Members of both houses, regardless
of their party, length of service, or political philosophy. Each Member, as a
consequence of the American system of political parties and elections noted above,
is an independent political decision-maker who makes his or her own judgments
about what legislation to sponsor or support. Individual members of their staffs
request help from CRS, for example, in learning about issues, developing ideas for
legislation, and evaluating legislative proposals made by the President, their
colleagues, or private organizations.
The system of making congressional nominations through primary elections also
severely limits the influence of party organizations on the selection of House and
Senate candidates. Each party’s candidates for election to Congress usually are
chosen in a preliminary or “primary” election. In most states, any person can be
listed on his party’s primary election ballot if he or she can demonstrate some support
from its members. The person who wins the primary election then becomes the
party’s candidate even if the state or local party leaders would have preferred
someone else.
Thus, candidates for election to the House and Senate are political
entrepreneurs. They usually decide at their own initiative that they want to seek
election and they obtain the nomination of their party by winning a primary election,
not by winning the support of a formal party organization. They then associate
themselves with their party and its other candidates as it serves their own interests.
As a result, there is a direct and personal tie between each Representative and
Senator and the voters in his or her district or state. The support Members enjoy in

10 These 435 Members are joined in the House of Representatives by the Delegates from
American Samoa, Guam, the Virgin Islands, and the District of Columbia, and the Resident
Commissioner from Puerto Rico.

their constituencies rests partly on their party affiliations. Yet their election and re-
election do not necessarily depend on their party support or the efforts of formal party
organizations. When Members of either house are elected for the first time and arrive
in Congress, they almost certainly feel an allegiance to their party and they wish to
support its leaders whenever possible. But most new Members also understand that
they were not elected merely because of their party; they owe their success largely to
their own efforts.
In this situation, Representatives and Senators can be independent political
decision-makers. They develop their own bills and amendments to promote the
policies that are important to them and their constituencies. As they prepare for each
legislative decision, Members may consider many influences, though they ultimately
reach their own decisions based on their personal public policy preferences, the
advice of their personal staff, and their assessment of what is in the best interests of
their state or district. Each Member then needs direct access to a source of
information and analysis to help him or her make these judgments — a source of
accurate information and expert analysis that is independent and dependable and that
has no interest in affecting the Member’s decisions. To serve this need, the resources
of CRS are available equally to each Representative and Senator without regard to
party, position, or philosophy.
Support Throughout the Legislative Process
CRS supports the Members, committees, and leaders of the House and Senate
at all stages of the legislative process, from helping them as they evaluate the need
for new legislation before it is introduced, to giving them technical assistance as they
reach final agreement on bills before they are presented to the President for his
approval or disapproval.
The ideas for legislation come from many sources, but every bill must be
introduced by a Representative or Senator before Congress can formally consider it.
The President and other executive branch officials frequently submit drafts of
proposed bills to Congress which Representatives and Senators introduce on their
behalf. Legislative proposals also come from interest groups and other private
organizations, and even from individual citizens who have become particularly
interested in an issue. And of course, Members and their staffs frequently develop
their own legislative ideas.
CRS can contribute at this preliminary stage in several ways. Members may ask
CRS to provide background information and analysis on issues and events so they
can better understand the existing situation and then assess whether there is a
problem requiring a legislative remedy. This assistance may be a summary and
explanation of the scientific evidence on a technically complex matter, for example,
or it may be a collection of newspaper and journal articles discussing an issue from
different perspectives, or a comparative analysis of several explanations that have
been offered to account for a generally recognized problem. CRS also identifies
national and international experts with whom Members and staff may consult about

whatever issues concern them and sponsors programs at which Members meet with
experts to discuss issues of broad interest to Congress.
If a Member decides to introduce a bill, CRS analysts can assist the legislator
(or his or her staff) in clarifying the purposes of the bill, identifying issues it may
address, defining alternative ways for dealing with them, evaluating the possible
advantages and disadvantages of each alternative, developing information and
arguments to support the bill, and anticipating possible criticisms of the bill and
responses to them. Although CRS does not draft bills, resolutions, and amendments,
its analysts may join staff consulting with the professional draftsman within each
chamber’s Office of the Legislative Counsel as they translate the Member’s policy
decisions into formal legislative language.
Members and committees also can request CRS to help them assess and
compare legislative proposals, including competing bills introduced by Members and
proposals presented by executive branch officials, private citizens and organizations.
CRS can assess the intent, scope, and limits, of the various proposals.
When a bill is introduced in the House or Senate, it is assigned to a permanent
legislative committee with responsibility for that subject, and then usually to a
subcommittee of the committee. If the bill is broad in scope, it may be referred to
two or more committees. There is no requirement for any subcommittee or
committee to act on any bill, and the overwhelming majority of bills die because the
committees choose not to act on them. When a subcommittee selects a bill (or
several bills on the same subject) for serious attention, it usually begins by
conducting public hearings on one or more days at which executive branch officials,
other Members of Congress, representatives of private organizations, and even
individual citizens present their views on the bill’s merits. CRS analysts can assist
in this process by providing background information and reports, presenting a
preliminary briefing to Members or staff, identifying potential witnesses, and
suggesting questions that Members may consider asking the witnesses.
After the hearings on a bill, the subcommittee or committee meets to debate and
vote on amendments to it. If requested, CRS staff may attend these meetings to serve
as a nonpartisan source of expert information available to all Members. If the
subcommittee and then the full committee conclude that new legislation is needed,
they report a bill to the House or Senate for all its Members to consider. The
committee also submits a written report that explains the background for its decision,
analyzes the purposes and effects of each major provision of the bill, and includes
other information, such as predictions about the cost of implementing it, that help
other Members decide whether they should support the bill. CRS specialists may
assist the committee’s staff in preparing some sections of this report, although cost
estimates are developed by the Congressional Budget Office.
During the committee and floor consideration stage of the legislative process,
CRS can assist Representatives and Senators in several different ways, in addition
to providing background information to assist Members in understanding the issues
a bill addresses. CRS attorneys can help clarify legal effects the bill may have. CRS
policy analysts can work with Members in deciding whether to propose amendments
and then in making certain that their amendments are designed and phrased to

achieve the desired results. CRS also can help Members prepare for the debate by
providing data and other information that they can use to support the positions they
have decided to take.
The House and Senate each has a complex set of rules for determining if, when,
and how all its members will act on the bills its committees have approved. These
procedures control, among other things, how long Members can debate the bill and
if Members are free to offer amendments on the House or Senate floor to change its
provisions. The legislative procedures of the House generally impose limits on
deliberation, while the Senate, in part because it always has been much smaller than
the House, has placed more importance on engaging in extended debate and less
emphasis on reaching prompt decisions. CRS staff can clarify the legislative
procedures of the House and Senate, assisting Members and staff in understanding
the effects of these procedures and how Members can use the procedures to promote
their own legislative goals.
When the House and Senate first pass a bill, they usually have some
disagreement over precisely what it should say and do. All these disagreements must
be resolved before the legislative process is completed and the bill can be presented
to the President. For the most important bills, the two houses usually agree to create
a temporary conference committee composed of both Representatives and Senators,
most of whom had been involved in developing the bill initially in the committees
of the House and Senate. There is a different conference committee for each major
bill; the purpose of the committee is to reach compromises that settle all the
disagreements between the houses concerning that bill.
The discussions of a conference committee sometimes are very informal; in
other cases, they are as formal as bilateral treaty negotiations. CRS analysts can
contribute to this last stage of the legislative process by helping identify the issues to
be resolved, by clarifying and comparing the positions of the two houses on each
issue, and by identifying different ways in which the legislative disagreements could
be resolved. Once the conferees reach agreement, as they usually do, they present
their report to the House and Senate. If the two houses accept the report, the bill is
ready to be sent to the President for his approval or veto.
Throughout this process, CRS offers timely and confidential assistance to all
Members and committees that request it, limited only by CRS’s resources and the
requirements for balance, nonpartisanship and accuracy. CRS does not conduct
research on sitting Members or living former Members of Congress, unless granted
specific permission by that Member or that if Member is nominated by the President
for another office.
Further, CRS services are not limited to those that relate directly to enacting
new laws. For example, CRS attempts to assess emerging issues and developing
problems so that it will be prepared to assist the Congress if and when it becomes
necessary. Although it rarely conducts field research, CRS assists committees in
other aspects of their study and oversight responsibilities. In addition, it offers
numerous courses, including legal research seminars and institutes on the legislative
process, the budget processes, and the work of district and state staff. At the

beginning of each Congress, CRS also provides an orientation seminar for new
The Congressional Research Service serves the American people and their
constitutional system by serving Congress in a way that reflects underlying
characteristics of the national political process. Although sometimes compared with
research arms of other national legislatures, CRS is well-adapted to its own
constitutional and political context and might not prosper if reproduced without
change in a wholly different socioeconomic, historical, and constitutional setting.
Yet there are requisites for accountability and effectiveness that every democratic
government must meet in one way or another.
One such requisite is public participation in the lawmaking process through
representative bodies such as the United States Congress and other national
parliaments. Another is the need for the legislature and its members to be informed
sufficiently well so that they can make reasoned choices in responding to social
needs, and thereby also reinforce popular support for democratic institutions. By
helping to satisfy the information requirements of Congress and its Members, CRS
makes its unique contributions to preserving and strengthening democratic
government in the United States.