Despite bipartisan support from many organizations, Capitol Hill still hesitates to grant public access to taxpayer-funded formal reports from the Congressional Research Service (CRS). The Project On Government Oversight has long reported on the importance of opening these reports to the public.
POGO worked with many open-government allies to urge Members of Congress to change the publication policy that prevents CRS from releasing its formal reports to the public. Since we began our investigations in 2003, we have come across a few concerns about making these highly regarded reports public. Many involved the impacts of the policy change on CRS itself.
We reached out to Kevin Kosar, former CRS researcher of 11 years, to talk about the concerns we heard from Hill staffers regarding making formal reports public. Kosar serves as director of the Governance Project which focuses on Congress as an institution at the R Street Institute.
Concern #1: CRS reports are only meant for Congress, not the public.
Being called Congressional Research Service seems to imply an exclusivity to the formal reports, as if they are only for the eyes of Congress. Perhaps publicly releasing them would create problems or misunderstandings that compel Members of Congress to protect the reports from disclosure, even when the information isn’t classified or sensitive.
Does Congress already release CRS reports to the public? Do CRS researchers expect that their reports will make it to the public?
Kosar: Yes, all the time, and Congress has done so for decades. Consider this 1979 CRS annual report listing dozens of reports that Congress either published or released as committee prints. Thousands of CRS reports are scattered over various government Internet sites, including both House.gov and Senate.gov. CRS does not own the work it produces; Congress owns it, and anyone who works for Congress can release any report he or she pleases. The Senate’s Virtual Reference Desk has a bunch of reports on it, which is posted to help the public better understand how Congress works. So, for example, there are CRS reports on vetoes and legislative process.
The problem, obviously, is that reports are released to the public ad hoc. Some reports appear on the Internet quickly, but others take months or years to dribble out. Meanwhile, DC insiders can easily find the reports they need, or pay for a subscription service like CQ-Roll Call to get the reports. The rest of the public has to cast about thousands of websites in hopes of locating a report, which may well not be the latest and most up-to-date copy of the report. It is an inequitable situation.
Finally, the Internet has been around for 20 years, and these days everyone at CRS knows that their reports will eventually find their way out to the public. Thus, when a CRS expert wants to speak in utter confidence to Congress, they do it on the phone, in person, or via a confidential memorandum.
Concern #2: CRS researchers are not ready to be public persons, scrutinized for their work.
Decision-makers may be hesitant to make CRS reports public because they want to protect the people who work on them. Making these reports public could thrust the authors into the public sphere.
Would researchers be prepared for public attribution for their work? Would they want the attention?
Kosar: One of the allures of working at CRS is that your name goes on the report. CRS is an individualistic organization—the researcher aims to become known as the go-to person on a subject. To achieve that means putting one’s name on the reports. That’s how congressional staffers locate the expert they want, by seeing a name on a report. Additionally, getting promoted to higher grades and pay levels at CRS is heavily dependent on the work one does for Congress. You the CRS expert want Congress to ask you lots of questions, to request you to testify before Congress, and help work on legislation. I should also note that CRS’s promotion guidelines speak of the value of an analyst becoming a “nationally recognized expert” in a subject. When academics and other researchers outside Congress are citing a CRS analyst’s work, that testifies to its quality. And it is also really nice as a CRS analyst to have an academic contact you and say, “Hey, I saw your report on X— it was really good. Would you be interested in helping me with an academic study or coming to present a paper at a research conference?” It is good for CRS researchers to be active members of scholarly communities.
Concern #3: If reports are made public, CRS researchers will get negative attention and complaints that will make their work too difficult.
After all, if their names are on these reports, researchers might face some sort of harassment. Even if information is unclassified and without any sort of agenda, won’t researchers focusing on sensitive topics need to be protected? Why would they want to be associated with what they write?
Might researchers get in trouble for something they say? Or receive negative attention that interferes with their jobs?
Kosar: Everything written by CRS goes through four different stages of review. The reports are scrubbed of anything that might offend anyone. Moreover, they do not make recommendations or push policies. They lay out the facts and the options—which is not something that upsets many people.
In my 11 years there, I never heard of any CRS analyst or reference expert being stalked or threatened for writing a report. I mean, who beats up think-tank experts? Nobody. Do CRS analysts sometimes get grouchy emails from the public or activists? Sure—and the practice is to delete them and go on with one’s day.
Concern #4: Putting CRS’s formal reports online would change the content that CRS generates.
It may be one thing to be read by Hill staffers, but allowing the entire country to access the reports sounds intimidating and could change the content and format of the materials to make them more interesting to the broader audience. Soon CRS analysts may feel pressured to create something akin to clickbait.
If analysts are writing for a public audience, won’t they change the content of their work?
Kosar: No. This speculation is wrong on a few counts. First, the basic premise of the contention is odd. Members of Congress and congressional staff are members of the public, so it’s not as if we are talking about two different tribes of humans with completely different understandings of government. In fact, a significant percentage of legislators are brand new to Congress and benefit from reading primers that introduce them to complex governance topics. That the public also benefits from reading these reports is an extra benefit.
Second, CRS staff are paid by Congress and work for the Congressional Research Service. So, they are unflinchingly loyal and dedicated to writing reports and studies that appeal to Congress. Add to that the fact that CRS’s promotion policy does not account for mentions in blogs or media sites. That’s not part of the promotion process. Furthermore, CRS has internal policies that ensure that reports are not being written about topics that are not of interest to Congress. The agency also tracks congressional downloads of its products so as to better understand what Congress wants and does not want. CRS’s focus, then, is laser-like on the needs of Congress and nothing will alter the basic incentive structure that keeps its focus on Congress’s wants.
Ultimately, we are seeing growing bicameral support for publicizing formal CRS reports. Creating uniform access to all formal reports for the public would not overwhelm or inhibit this congressional agency. Instead, it would enrich public discourse in a fair way, putting the average taxpayer on the same level as the Washington insiders and groups that can afford expensive third-party access to CRS information.