In classic Washington fashion, the Congressional Research Service's reports are officially available only to members of Congress and their staff. This doesn’t mean they don’t circulate: They’re shared with the administration, lobbyists, reporters, foreign diplomats and other Beltway insiders. A cottage industry of private firms has gotten in on the action, charging hundreds of dollars per year for subscriptions to tap into their own repositories of CRS reports. The Federation of American Scientists, a private outside group, maintains its own partial online database. But the reports aren’t officially announced or published online.
Now, members of Congress and a coalition that ranges includes good government and tea party groups, as well as academics and former CRS officials, are making a push to change the rules and open up public access to the thousands of CRS reports produced and updated every year.
“We have to recognize the American public is no longer informed by the likes of Cronkite and Murrow,” said Rep. Mike Quigley during a panel discussion in the Rayburn House Office building last week, arguing that the reports are a crucial source of unbiased information. "They're being informed by pundits and ideologues."
A bill co-authored by Quigley (D-Ill.) and Rep. Leonard Lance (R-N.J.) would set up a centralized digital database of CRS reports, making them open and searchable. Last Thursday, advocates released a letter in support of the effort from about two dozen former CRS officials urging key House and Senate congressional leaders to allow for "timely, comprehensive free public access" to the reports.Former CRS analyst Kevin Kosar lists 15 reasons for making the reports public:
- Taxpayers pay more than $100 million to operate the CRS. It only seems fair that they have easy access to CRS reports. But they do not.
- Beltway insiders easily can access CRS reports through pricy subscription services and get them from people who work on Capitol Hill. The average American cannot. This is grossly inequitable.
- CRS reports do not contain classified, sensitive or secret information. No harm can come from their release.
- The Internet is awash in lies and half-truths about government. CRS reports carry nonpartisan, factual descriptions and analyses that explain government agencies and programs. CRS also publishes guides that explain how Congress works. Making CRS reports widely available, then, can serve as an antiseptic to the toxic rumors and misinformation.
- The media often get things wrong. Allowing broader access to CRS reports would help media avoid needless errors.
- I have seen members of Congress hold up a CRS report and then mischaracterize its contents. Broad public access to CRS reports would increase the odds of such deception being exposed.
- Expanding public access to CRS reports is not a partisan issue. It is good government and a matter of fairness. There is bipartisan support for publishing CRS reports on House.gov or one of the other public congressional websites. Reps. Leonard Lance, R-N.J. and Mike Quigley, D-Ill., are the most recent advocates.
- Forty diverse groups, including those representing librarians, scientists and civil-liberty advocates, support more equitable public access to CRS reports.
- Contrary to the claims of some individuals, there never has been a policy that CRS reports must stay secret. For decades, Congress has been releasing some CRS to the public. This1979 CRS annual report shows dozens of CRS reports published as congressional committee prints or introduced into the Congressional Record.
- Making CRS reports more widely available to the public will not hurt their quality. Rather, it may well improve them, as CRS experts will be freed to share them with outside experts for feedback. That is how experts learn more and produce better work. Besides, CRS already produces information for public consumption, such as the Constitution Annotated, the bill summaries found at CRS.gov, a 400-page volume called The Evolving Congress and evendebate materials for high schoolers.
- CRS.gov, the Congress-only website where CRS posts its reports, went down for the better part of a week last summer. Congress lost all access to CRS reports. Backing up CRS reports to a public site like Congress.gov would increase the odds that 24/7 congressional access to CRS reports would be maintained.
- Retired and former CRS employees with more than 500 years of CRS service signed a letter supporting public release of CRS reports.
- The current policy is bad for CRS employees. They cannot freely share their work with peers in academia, think tanks and other research environments. Unlike experts at the Government Accountability Office and Congressional Budget Office, CRS employees cannot list their publications on their LinkedIn pages. CRS Managers, who have much better things to do, are forced to police the release of their analysts’ work, which sows enmity among employees.
- Creating a public CRS reports website would save tons of congressional and CRS staff time. Right now, the public writes Congress when it has a problem, the congressional staffer contacts CRS and then a CRS analyst or research librarian will send over a copy of a CRS report that answers the constituent’s question. This is grossly inefficient. The public should be free and encouraged to seek answers to basic questions about government (e.g., “How much is spent on the Department of Agriculture yearly?”) from Congress.gov or another public website that carries CRS reports.
- Libraries should not have to pay for government-produced information. But they do. They must pay private subscription services to access CRS reports.