Representatives Leonard Lance (R-NJ) and Mike Quigley (D-IL) introduced legislation today that will help the American people, the media, and government employees better understand important public policy issues. The bipartisan “Public Access to Congressional Research Service Reports Resolution of 2012” (aka H. Res 727) would ensure that reports by Congress’s $100 million-a-year think tank become available to the public on a website maintained by the House Clerk.
The reports, prepared by the Congressional Research Service, are frequently cited by the courts and the media and requested by members of the public, but CRS does not release them to the public. Instead, they come to widespread attention after they are released in dribs and drabs by Congressional offices and painstakingly collected by researchers. Some are collected and sold for $20 a copy, while others are made available by non-profit organizations for public consumption. By the time they become publicly available, the reports can become outdated, especially when an issue is moving quickly in Congress.
Reliable access to CRS Reports would ensure that everyone has timely and comprehensive access to the collective wisdom of hundreds of analysts and experts on political issues when they’re at their most salient. This is already common practice in other support arms of the Congress, like the Government Accountability Office and the Congressional Budget Office.
In the past CRS reports have been more widely available, but relatively recent CRS-imposed policies are increasingly limiting access even as the Internet has made the documents easier to share. In fact, the original limitation on public access was imposed in the 1950s on CRS’s predecessor agency and arose from a concern about the costs of printing and mailing the reports — not their confidentiality. In the Internet age, this limitation no longer makes sense, especially as these reports are already available on CRS’s internal website in electronic form.
The legislation is careful to ensure that confidential memoranda between CRS and individual members of Congress are kept confidential — only the reports that CRS makes generally available to the 10,000+ hill staffers will be online. While it requires reports be searchable and downloadable, the resolution also ensures that confidential and copyrighted information will be redacted, along with the names and contact information for the report’s authors.
Over the years, many members of Congress and organizations have called for public access to CRS Reports. The Sunlight Foundation has asked for this for years. Public access legislation has been sponsored in the House or Senate nearly every Congress going back for more than a decade. And in other countries, public access is routine: 85% of G-20 countries whose parliaments have subject matter experts make CRS-like reports available to the public.
The resolution introduced by Representatives Lance and Quigley opens the doors to greater public understanding of Congress and should be applauded and supported. Unlike most legislation, it only needs to be adopted by the House of Representatives, so contact your representative to urge that this important resolution be adopted. And don’t forget to thank Reps. Lance and Quigley.