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Give Congress the data it needs for stronger lawmaking and oversight

The Supreme Court last month agreed to hear a case to decide whether a minority of lawmakers can sue federal agencies to see their records if there aren’t enough votes to issue a subpoena. Congress is constantly battling the executive branch over access to information, but that friction will come to a head this summer when the Supreme Court rules on a case that could severely limit the discretion Congress gives the executive branch in the policy-making process.

The impact of this decision may have lasting effects on how the administrative state and Congress approach policymaking. It also raises questions about Congress’ ability to evaluate the performance of federal programs for which it has oversight responsibility (requiring Congress to adopt a more inclusive approach to the legislative process) when the separation of powers keeps most relevant information about these programs within the executive branch.

Regardless of which administration is in power, federal agencies frequently impede legislative access to this critical information.

Policymakers are overwhelmed with information coming at them from endless sources. The challenge Congress must face is sifting through the wealth of information and determining which information is high quality and relevant to current topics.

To address this issue, Congress has established several advocacy agencies, including the Congressional Research Service (CRS), the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), and the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which are staffed by nonpartisan policy analysts whose sole mission is to answer lawmakers’ and staff’s questions about the intricacies of policy.

All three agencies depend on access to up-to-date and reliable data, but the House Modernization Subcommittee recently heard testimony from a former CRS analyst who said, “In some cases, we were bluntly told by federal agencies that the data was not available to us.”

Congress has recently undertaken two important bipartisan efforts to enhance access to real-time, high-quality data.

First, the House Budget Committee passed the Congressional Budget Office Data Sharing Act from the House of Representatives by voice vote with bipartisan support, which would expand the CBO’s access to federal data, provided that the CBO maintains the same confidentiality required of the data’s home agency.

Similarly, the House Administration Committee recently advanced the Congressional Research Service’s Data Access Modernization Act, but the bill has not yet passed the House.

Current and former staff members of congressional support agencies often point to their personal relationships with federal officials in relevant policy areas as a means of consistently accessing the information they need to do their jobs. While these relationships are important, Congress’s ability to carry out its mandate should not depend on these informal information-sharing dynamics.

The executive branch is likely to resist these efforts to circumvent Congress’ oversight power, as previous presidential administrations have done, but the Court has consistently upheld both Congress’ right to obtain information from the executive branch and Congress’ right to exercise its oversight power. and The limits of congressional investigation.

Morton Rosenberg, a longtime CRS analyst, points out that “Congress’ investigative powers are broad, but not unlimited.” There is nothing in the pending bill to upset that balance. While some might point to security concerns about increasing the number of individuals and entities with access to certain information, CBO and CRS have demonstrated their ability to securely process and analyze federal data for decades.

It will always be important for Congress to have access to the best possible information to make decisions, but the need to address this issue is rapidly becoming more urgent. If the Supreme Court were to overturn the Chevron deference doctrine, Congress would need to fill the gap, but currently Congress lacks the expertise and capacity to do so. Addressing the issues related to information access for Congressional support agencies now would save Congress headaches in the future.

Congress has a constitutional responsibility to provide oversight to the executive branch and to enact laws that address the nation’s most pressing challenges. Increasing access to high-quality, real-time data is a necessary step toward achieving these goals, and these two bills could help move us in the right direction.

Dr. J.D. Lackey is a senior policy analyst at the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Structural Democracy Project and a former staff member of the U.S. House of Representatives Select Committee on Congressional Modernization.

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