It has been a long held position by Sunlight and our allies that the Congressional Research Service (CRS), a taxpayer-funded research arm for Congress, should make its reports to the available to the public. But until Congress expands access to this public knowledge, a newly launched resource from Demand Progress, EveryCRSReport.com, will enable the disclosure that our legislators should have enacted years ago. Sunlight’s founding executive director, Ellen Miller, wrote in 2009 that opening up CRS reports “is an easy transparency reform that boggles the mind as to why it has not yet been done.”
The research that CRS conducts and provides to Congress is a valuable resource that, if published online, would empower the public to be more informed about the subjects and the counsel that our representatives receive. We are far from alone in this view.
“It is 2016, any student, reporter, taxpayer or interested citizen should be able to view CRS reports online,” said Rep. Leonard Lance, R-N.J., in a statement. “These reports for paid for by taxpayer funds, the taxpayers should be able to read them. It is past time to end the era of secrecy to these reports and open them to the benefit of research, reporting and public information. This online portal will become a resource for many and bolster the argument for transparency.”
EveryCRSReport.com was created by Demand Progress and is the brainchild of its policy director, Daniel Schuman, a former Sunlighter whose tenure here featured years of advocacy to open up legislative data and congressionally mandated research to the public. Schuman, who once worked as a legislative attorney at the CRS on Capitol Hill, came to believe that CRS reports should be available and has now acted to make that a reality when Congress did not.
“For more than 20 years, the public has clamored for Congress to systematically release CRS reports to the public,” said Schuman in a statement. “Instead, those with DC connections have received preferential access, leaving lone members of Congress to fill the gaps and address iniquities. Congress must do better, and this new website points the way forward.”
This isn’t the first time that advocates have built what Congress did not. From 2005 to 2013, the Center for Democracy & Technology provided provided public access to CRS reports that in the public domain at OpenCRS.com. The site was taken offline in 2014 due to security problems. In its absence, the Federation of American Scientists has been maintaining the best online archive of CRS reports, but it isn’t complete and there are some issues with usability.
EveryCRSReport.com includes over 8,200 reports in its searchable database, with automatic updates, RSS, “freshness ratings” that show how much a report has changed, a bulk download function and an open source platform that the public can adopt and run. The site’s administrators are mindful to the need to protect privacy while releasing open data: They have redacted the author’s name, email and phone in these reports. They’ve also made it clear that the reports are not copyrighted.
“Congress long ago could have fixed this inequitable and anachronistic situation with ease and little to no cost,” said Kevin Kosar, senior fellow and governance project director at the R Street Institute and a former research manager and analyst at the Congressional Research Service, in a statement. “But it dithered for years, so the private sector stepped forward and got the job done in a blink.”
If you’re wondering how the CRS reports for the site are being acquired, the process relies on a partnership with a Democratic and Republican member of Congress, each of whom are providing the reports to Demand Progress. This “disclosure hack” is making use of a legal disclosure mechanism: every member of the public can request a CRS report from his or her Representative.
It is refreshing to see some members of Congress committed to a more open government in this area.
“Increasing transparency and accountability in government is not only the key to improving public trust, it is the key to improving the way government works,” said Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., in a statement. “I applaud Demand Progress on their efforts to bring greater transparency to the exceptional, non-partisan research conducted by the Congressional Research Service. Information is the power the people need to trust their government and the work we do each and every day.”
We have heard the arguments that publishing CRS reports online would have a negative impact upon the speed or quality of the information that Members of Congress and are well aware of the opposition that their release received on the floor of the House earlier last year, when legislators voted against open CRS reports to the public.
As Matt Fuller reported for the Huffington Post, “At a time when highly informed voters might seem like a good thing, the Appropriations Committee voted down, 18-32, an amendment from Reps. Mike Quigely (D-Ill.) and Scott Rigell (R-Va.) that would have made it easier for the public to access Congressional Research Service reports.”
We and our allies judge the arguments opposing expanded access to CRS reports to be specious. Sunlight stands with a bipartisan coalition in calling on the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate to work with the new Librarian of Congress to make CRS reports open to all. (Perhaps at open.crs.gov?)
“Today, Demand Progress has enabled researchers and entrepreneurs everywhere to benefit from the kind of information that drives innovation,” said Julie Todaro, president of the American Library Association, in a statement. “Now it’s time for Congress to permanently guarantee this access by law, and to itself create an online portal to such vital, taxpayer-funded information for all.”