The document is essentially a research paper and not a congressional assessment.
The latest report on India for U.S. lawmakers rating the administration of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi and some of his counterparts in other States higher on a scale of efficiency is being interpreted by Mr. Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party as a trophy of sorts, but the assessment should be looked at in the proper perspective.
The guarded interpretation in the latest Congressional Research Service (CRS) report should not be taken to be the voice of either the bicameral U.S. Congress or the Federal government.
While political parties and leaders who find positive references in it can claim these to be an endorsement by Capitol Hill, it is in no way a Congressional determination.
While it may suit political parties to amplify observations made in the report for the consumption of the domestic audience, in reality the CRS report is essentially based on published reports and is not an assessment based on some classified documents available with the U.S. State Department or its intelligence agencies.
Interestingly, while the news report based on the CRS document has become a great hit in cyberspace and has caught the imagination of some news television networks at home, the document also notes that a few years ago Mr. Modi had been denied visa to visit the United States, and makes other not so complimentary references.
To place the development in context, it must be known that CRS reports are scholarly analyses of an issue or set of issues. These reports are not intended to serve as a position that the U.S. Congress has taken or may be taking.
These reports are intended to give several hundred Congressional staffers, some of whom may be working on an issue for the first time, a solid base to completely understand what they are dealing with.
It is necessary since it not unusual for members of Congress — 435 representatives in the House and 100 Senators — to take up an issue that could find reflection in his or her constituency.
Professional staff working in the offices of the Congressmen/Senators or for various Congressional committees rely regularly on CRS reports as a ready reference material on issues they may be handling for the first time.
The reports place issues in context and are updated periodically to bring on board any development connected with the topic of study. The staffers take these as base papers and also rely on other ingredients, including interactions with subject experts in the CRS and other think-tanks, as well as on advocacy groups and lobbyists.
The CRS is a body of professionals equipped with qualified research staff and academic assistants engaged in year-round research. As a matter of routine they go through documents and periodicals on the subject area from the country/region, on open sources, and also draw upon the huge reservoir of books available at the unparalleled Library of Congress.
For instance, in the realm of foreign policy, the CRS portfolio is broadly divided into international policy concerns, U.S. relations with different regions and strategic issues; with each of these categories having several sub-groups.
The topics of concern keep changing depending on the CRS assessment of what are likely to be ‘hot-button issues' for the Congress during the year. Depending on the assessment, the CRS works on the new topics while the process of periodic updating of existing categories continues simultaneously.
Interestingly, these papers do not contain any internal assessment of the State Department or classified dossiers of intelligence wings, and only at times do Members of Congress like those serving on the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee or Committee on Homeland Security get closed-door briefings from such agencies. Here, too, access to such briefings is restricted to select staffers.
(The writer spent a year as American Political Science Association-U.S. Congressional Fulbright Fellow during 2007-08 in Washington D.C. in the office of Jim McDermott, who represents the 7th District of Washington State.)