Daniel Schuman Testimony Before The House Committee On Appropriations Regarding CRS And THOMAS
of Daniel Schuman Policy Counsel of the Sunlight Foundation Director of the Advisory Committee on Transparency
before the Committee on Appropriations Subcommittee on Legislative Branch United States House of Representatives
on Appropriations for Fiscal Year 2012 Regarding transparency and funding for the Congressional Research Service and bulk access to THOMAS legislative information
May 11, 2011
Chairman Crenshaw, Ranking Member Honda, and members of the Committee, thank you for allowing me to to appear before you today.
My name is Daniel Schuman, and I am the Policy Counsel for the Sunlight Foundation, a non-partisan non-profit dedicated to using the power of the Internet to increase government openness and transparency. I am here today to speak with you about empowering the Congressional Research Service to better serve Congress and the American people by eliminating the red tape that constrains public access to its work, and encouraging this committee to follow-up on its languishing inquiry regarding public access to the raw legislative information that powers THOMAS.
Permit Public Access to General Distribution CRS Products
American taxpayers spend around $100 million a year to fund CRS and its nearly 700-strong staff. As an administrative unit of the Library of Congress, CRS has historically furthered the Library’s public mission by, among other things, composing legislative summaries that are published on THOMAS; updating the legal treatise “Constitution of the United States, Analysis and Interpretation;” exchanging ideas with scholars and other interested parties; and writing reports that are made publicly available with some frequency.
CRS products often can be found online. Several private companies sell CRS Reports, for example. Government and non-profit websites also collect the reports and make them available as a public service. Unfortunately, there is no comprehensive source, and updated versions of the reports are frequently unavailable. The legal treatise Constitution Annotated, another CRS product, has been published online for a decade through a collaborative GPO/CRS effort, but in an inadequate fashion such that the content is difficult to use and always significantly out-of-date.
CRS products help frame public debate on important issues. In the last two years alone, major newspapers cited CRS reports 779 times, including 70 mentions in the Washington Post and 65 mentions in the New York Times. Federal courts also have made use of CRS analyses. In the last decade, courts have cited CRS Reports 130 times. From 1973-2010, the U.S. Supreme Court cited CRS Reports 34 times, and circuit courts cited CRS 112 times. Similarly, the Constitution Annotated is a sufficiently important public resource that Cornell, Justia, and others have undertaken great effort to republish it online in an integrated and useful format.
Since 1952, annual legislative branch appropriations language has restricted the Library of Congress’s ability to pay for publication costs. With minor variations since 1954, annual appropriations bills have required:
That no part of such amount [used to carry out the provisions of section 203 of the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946] may be used to pay any salary or expense in connection with any publication, or preparation of material therefor (except the Digest of Public General Bills), to be issued by the Library of Congress unless such publication has obtained prior approval of either the Committee on House Administration of the House of Representatives or the Committee on Rules and Administration of the Senate.
Note that the limitation is drafted to apply to the Library of Congress; CRS was not created until 1970, 18 years after the restriction was first instated, and its predecessor organization, the Legislative Reference Service, played a much more limited role.
It’s likely that this 59-year-old restriction was intended as a cost-savings measure, leftover from a bygone era of expensive layout and printing costs. Times have changed, and these limitations are a counterproductive anachronism in the Internet age. A coalition of 38 organizations recently wrote to you to urge an end to the restriction.
Modern CRS products, including CRS Reports, are created in digital form and published on the congressional intranet. Were these products released to the public, it would likely be through electronic means that would impose minimal additional expense. More than ten thousand CRS Reports have already been published online by commercial vendors and public interest groups. Ironically, CRS may be incurring costs in its attempts to prevent reports from being publicly disseminated, especially considering that those efforts are only sporadically effective, constitute a diversion from the agency’s core purposes, and are contrary to the Library’s mission.
Decisions regarding public access to CRS work products specifically, and library publications generally, ultimately reside with the individual Members of Congress, the coordinating efforts of the Joint Committee on Libraries, and each House. For the last 15 years, CRS’s embrace of an overbroad interpretation of the appropriations limitation has stifled its ability to innovate, meet the needs of its clients, and fulfill its public responsibilities. It needs a clear signal from Congress to modernize, and Congress should eliminate CRS’s excuse for failing to do so.
When congressional staff google for CRS reports, review Cornell’s Constitution Annotated website to learn about a Supreme Court decision, search YouTube for a CRS briefing on changes in Federal Law, or attempt to send a constituent a link to a CRS report, they find themselves frustrated or misled. It is wishful thinking to believe that congressional staff will seek out CRS products only in the way that CRS desires. CRS has behaved as if it is statutorily prohibited from lifting a finger to meet its clients halfway.
Let me be clear: no one has requested that all CRS reports be made publicly available. One-on-one communications between CRS and individual Members of Congress or their staff are and ought to be confidential. However, such confidentiality is inappropriate when applied to other CRS products, including reports for general distribution, legislative summaries, the legal treatise Constitution Annotated. As former counsel to the House of Representatives Stan Brand wrote in 1998, legal and constitutional concerns often raised by CRS with respect to making CRS Reports available on the Internet “are either overstated, or the extent they are not, provide no basis for arguing that protection of CRS works would be weakened by [legislation to put CRS reports online].”
Speaker Boehner and Majority Leader Cantor recently wrote to the Clerk of the House to encourage the development of a new electronic data standard to make legislative information more open and Congress more accountable to the American people. That same requirement of openness and accountability should apply to CRS – an arm of the legislative branch – except in the instances where confidentiality of support to Members of Congress is appropriate, such as in limited-distribution memoranda and personal consultations. We ask that the Committee bring CRS into the 21st century by granting it the flexibility to release its products online without excuse or fear of violating an antiquated publication restriction.
Public Access to THOMAS Information
There is little need for me to remind this committee of the importance of public access to legislative information. The Pew Research Center’s 2010 Government Online report found that one in five adults who use the Internet had downloaded or read legislation during the past year. THOMAS, the online portal through which this information flows, has provided an invaluable window into the workings of Congress. Unfortunately, the American people are thirsty for information, but can only access this information one drop at a time.
In 2009, this committee adopted a forward-thinking approach that would have required an examination of granting the American people access the entirety of the legislative archives at once – via a method known as “bulk” access – in its explanatory statement accompanying the Omnibus Appropriations Act of 2009. It said:
Public Access to Legislative Data.–There is support for enhancing public access to legislative documents, bill status, summary information, and other legislative data through more direct methods such as bulk data downloads and other means of no-charge digital access to legislative databases. The Library of Congress, Congressional Research Service, and Government Printing Office and the appropriate entities of the House of Representatives are directed to prepare a report on the feasibility of providing advanced search capabilities. This report is to be provided to the Committees on Appropriations of the House and Senate within 120 days of the release of Legislative Information System 2.0.
Nearly three years later, no such report has been issued (as far as we know). There is no reason to believe that Legislative Information System 2.0 as originally identified will be “released” any time soon, if at all, or in a fashion that would trigger the release of this report.
In the meantime, the Government Printing Office, one of the entities responsible for THOMAS, has published five datasets online in bulk, including the Code of Federal Regulations and the Federal Register. Already technologists have found ways to reuse this information in new and exciting ways that enhance public access.
Although there are ongoing efforts to obtain the data from THOMAS through other means, these methods are prone to error, onerous, slow, and fragile. We must do better. Providing bulk access to THOMAS data would allow users to download large amounts of information at once, providing technology innovators with the ability to creatively use data to solve new problems and address unmet needs. This could include the ability to see how amendments would change bills in real-time, identify similar legislation introduced over multiple congress, allow users to receive alerts upon movement of noteworthy legislation, and much more.
Times have changed since the Committee’s original unheeded directive, and we request your renewed attention. We urge the committee to direct the Library of Congress, the Government Printing Office, and the Congressional Research Service – or the agencies that now have responsibility for THOMAS – to provide bulk access to legislative documents, bill status, summary information, and other legislative data within 120 days. In addition, we ask for the immediate creation of an advisory committee composed of members of these agencies and members of the public that regularly meets to address the public’s need for public access to this information and the means by which it is provided.
Speaker Boehner and Majority Leader Cantor recently wrote to the Clerk of the House to encourage better public access to House legislative information. We request that you undertake similar efforts for the entirety of Congress’s legislative information.
This committee has the unparalleled opportunity to make government more open and accountable. At a minimum, the committee should make clear that CRS has the ability to grant public access to general distribution CRS products by ending this antiquated and outmoded appropriation restriction. It should also bring THOMAS into the 21st century by requiring bulk access to legislative information and public consultation on its evolution. Both of these measures would bring us toward an open, transparent government and an informed, engaged public.
Thank you for the opportunity to testify today. I look forward to your questions.
(the full text, with footnotes, is available in the original document)