Can Congress Do Policy Analysis? The Politics of Problem Solving on Capitol Hill

The conventional wisdom is that the U.S. Congress is not well-structured to do policy analysis. According to the received view, Congress’s internal organization is inconsistent with analytical perceptions and definitions of policy issues. Congress caters to the demands of interest groups, and regularly makes economic decisions that policy analysts find indefensible on efficiency grounds. But negative assessments of Congress’s capacity as a policy analyst cut too deeply. Drawing on an opinion survey of Washington-area policy analysts as well as on confidential interviews with senior analysts from the CBO, GAO, and CRS, this paper evaluates Congress’s ability to perform eight key policy analysis tasks (Bardach 2009), including defining problems, confronting trade-offs, and telling causal stories to an audience. While we do not set out to “save” Congress’s reputation, our analysis provides a more a balanced, fine-grained view of Congress’s capacities and limitations as a problem-solving institution. The concluding section offers some speculative comments about how secular trends including partisan polarization, the widening of the policy agenda, and the growing complexity of government have interacted with Congress’s policy analytic strengths and weaknesses to affect institutional performance.