Holding the Government Accountable

Appropriations Bill May Finally Make Congressional Research Reports Public

(Photo: Mark Poblete / Flickr)

The Project On Government Oversight has long advocated for free and open public access to the publicly funded Congressional Research Service (CRS) reports, and is happy to say that the day anyone can access a CRS report may soon be here.

In the proposed appropriations for the CRS released yesterday, the House Appropriations Committee directed the CRS to “make available to the public, all non-confidential reports,” and because the mandate is in a Legislative Branch Appropriations bill, these reports are only one successful House vote away from being publicly released.

Since its founding over century ago, the CRS has served Congress’s need for information with “comprehensive and reliable legislative research and analysis.” Its reports cover the gamut of public policy issues, and, according to Daniel Schuman, Policy Director for Demand Progress, they are “frequently cited by the courts and media.” But for far too long and despite nearly two decades of initiatives against the status quo, this wealth of information was easily accessible only to Members of Congress, Capitol Hill insiders, and those with the resources to pay for privately run subscription services.

The public release of CRS reports would finally bring the CRS’s openness policies in line with those of the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the other Congressional research entity. The GAO publishes hundreds of reports every year, and offers the public a frequently updated website and a convenient email subscription service. The GAO’s accessibility makes it an invaluable tool for vigilant citizens and watchdog groups like POGO who want to ensure that the government continues to work for the people.

Similar levels of accessibility for the CRS would be a big win for increased government transparency. This appropriations bill represents a mass democratization of non-partisan, unbiased information. If passed, it will provide the public with the same information on the issues as their Members of Congress, allowing citizens to better hold their government accountable for its decisions and participate in an informed public discourse. In a time of “alternative facts” and “fake news,” public access to CRS reports is more necessary than ever.

Unfortunately, House sources indicate that an amendment may be introduced by Representative Betsy McCollum (D-MN) to weaken the bill’s language, undermining public access to CRS reports. Passing this amendment would be a mistake. Weakening this long-overdue transparency measure perpetuates the harmful opacity and misinformation surrounding government, and harms the public’s general understanding of the issues facing the nation today.

POGO applauds the House Appropriations Committee for including this measure in its proposed appropriations for the CRS, and urges the House to pass this aspect of this Legislative Branch Appropriations bill as is. Congress is the people’s branch, and it’s about time the Congressional Research Service became the people’s, too.