Holding the Government Accountable

Congressional Transparency Caucus Drives CRS Reports Talks

Recently, a bipartisan panel from the Congressional Transparency Caucus discussed the importance of centralizing the distribution of formal reports by the Congressional Research Service (CRS), a legislative branch agency.

CRS formal reports are known for their in-depth, unbiased analysis across a wide spectrum of policy issues. As things stand, CRS only makes them available to Congress. That said, some can be accessed through third-party services such as LexisNexis—but you have to pay for them. And much of the research winds up online when uploaded by Members of Congress, committees, or groups such as Federation of American Scientists. But none of that replaces the fair, complete, free, and timely access that would result if CRS simply posted these reports online for the entire public.

The Project On Government Oversight is part of the long-standing bipartisan effort to bring public access to CRS formal reports, having supported previous legislation introduced by Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT) in 2003. But the much-sought change to CRS report access has not happened.

In conjunction with the panel discussion, 22 former CRS researchers sent a letter to Congress in support of free public access to CRS formal reports. The letter scrutinized the arguments against allowing public access (as did another letter supported by over 30 organizations including POGO). Collectively the former staff who signed the letter had more than 500 years of experience at CRS.

Representative Leonard Lance (R-NJ), one of the event’s speakers, noted that American taxpayers already pay $100 million a year to fund these reports. It is therefore unfair for taxpayers to pay again for comprehensive access to CRS reports.

In many ways this policy change for public access would not be groundbreaking, but more of a small adjustment to the present publication policy.

Panelist and former CRS Researcher Kevin Kosar said this change in CRS report access would make the system “a little more democratic and frankly a little more sensible.”

Representative Mike Quigley (D-IL), co-founder of the Transparency Caucus, asked for centralized access to formal reports for taxpayers as a means to increase transparency and inform the public on the decision-making of their elected officials.

“Disclosing the CRS reports isn’t the end-all, be-all. It’s not going to solve all our problems, but it addresses the greater problem here in our country and it’s that distrust of government,” said Quigley.

Lance and Quigley introduced a bill to grant public access to non-confidential CRS reports. The CRS website is currently only available to Members of Congress and their staff.

Stan Brand, formal general counsel to the U.S. House of Representatives, said the resistance to change in access to CRS reports is due to “the inevitable tension between the old way we do things and technology.”

“It just makes people nervous to think this stuff would be out there, when in fact it’s already out there,” Brand said.

Other panelists discussed the arguments against opening access to CRS reports, all of which, they agreed, were “bad reasons.” Daniel Schuman, panel moderator and co-founder of the Congressional Data Coalition, said CRS reports could include a similar statement to the publicly available reports from the Government Accountability Office, another congressional agency, to address concerns like copyright.

The panel went on to emphasize the usefulness of CRS formal reports as a resource to Americans.

“We observe a use for education, innovation, and the ability to build on the work of others,” said panelist Prue Adler, associate executive director of the Association of Research Libraries.

“There aren’t a lot of advocates for this, maybe because it’s so obvious that we assume it should be done,” former Representative Chris Shays (R-CT) said.