Former CRS employees put heat on Congress to make reports public

Inside the Library of Congress, which houses the Congressional Research Service. (Photo credit: The Carol M. Highsmith Archive/Wikimedia Commons)

Earlier today, a letter was delivered to a group of lawmakers with the power to push the Congressional Research Service (CRS) toward the sunlight. The letter urged them to make nonconfidential CRS reports available to the public. Signed by former employees of the CRS who together represent more than 500 years of experience at the agency, the letter calls for “timely, comprehensive free public access to CRS reports.”

Currently, the CRS reports are widely available to congressional staff and lobbyists, and members and committees can disseminate CRS products on their websites. The CRS also provides reports by request to journalists, the judicial branch and the executive branch. They often make their way online, but not in a comprehensive manner. Those able to pay can access the reports through a number of third-party subscription services. The letter highlights the scattered nature of the CRS reports that are online:

A Google search returned over 27,000 products including 4,260 hosted on .gov domains, but there is no way to know if those documents are up to date, whether the search is comprehensive, or when the documents might disappear from view.

The reports are useful to the public because of their nonpartisan essence, rare in a world of spin, and because they cover the wide range of issues that Congress cares about. Not to mention that taxpayers pay more than $100 million annually for this service to exist and operate.

“CRS reports are the gold standard for thoughtful, in-depth explanations of pending issues before Congress,” said Daniel Schuman, policy director at Demand Progress who spearheaded the letter writing. “All Americans should have equal access to these nonconfidential reports, not only special interests and those with greater financial resources.”

The letter goes on to make a strong argument for CRS to publish their reports online in a way for everyday citizens to easily access them:

We believe Congress should provide a central online source for timely public access to CRS reports. That would place all members of the public on an equal footing to one another with respect to access. It would resolve concerns around public and congressional use of the most up- to-date version. Additionally, it would ensure the public can verify it is using an authentic version. And it would diminish requests to analysts to provide a copy of the most recent report. Other legislative support agencies, i.e., the Congressional Budget Office and the Government Accountability Office, publish non-confidential reports on their websites as a matter of course. Doing so does not appear to harm their ability to perform their mission for Congress.

The CRS handles many different types of publication, including confidential memoranda and briefs. If CRS reports were made publicly accessible, nothing would jeopardize the confidential status of the other CRS products.

This letter is the most recent action in an ongoing push for the publication of CRS reports. Two months ago, Demand Progress and the R Street Institute headed a letter signed by 40 organizations — including Sunlight — and 91 private citizens, calling for Congress to provide public access to CRS reports. The letter addressed and rebutted the concerns that the CRS has had in the past regarding public access. Along with these letters, in a more grassroots effort, a Demand Progress’ online petition allows the general public to send a note to their member of Congress.

If you’re interested in this topic, you’re in luck: Today, the Congressional Transparency Caucus is hosting a panel discussion today on Capitol Hill at 11 a.m. ET to discuss steps moving forward on CRS reports. Be sure to RSVP here! And if you can’t make it, there will be a live-stream here.