Holding the Government Accountable

House Committee Votes to Keep Congressional Reports Secret

Representatives Mike Quigely and Scott Rigell have been working to make Congressional Research Service (CRS) reports freely available to the public. Last week they brought that fight to the House Appropriations Committee. They presented clear explanation about how their proposal would work, how it would benefit the public and Congress, how they had addressed all concerns that had been raised to them. And then the committee voted against them. Twice.

The CRS produces hundreds of formal reports and updates for distribution to Congress each year. The organization typically spends more than $100 million in taxpayers’ money each year to research and produce its reports. Open government advocates, including the Project On Government Oversight, have long supported posting the formal reports (not the specific responses to Members’ requests) on a public website.

Quigely (D-IL) and Rigell (R-VA) are both cosponsors of the Equal Access to Congressional Research Service Reports Act of 2016, legislation that was introduced in March that would require the Government Printing Office to post all CRS reports online for general public access. The legislation excludes custom products and research prepared in response to a direct request from a congressional office, as well as any materials already being made publicly available on another government website.

The legislation was referred to the House Committee on House Administration but that committee hasn’t moved on the legislation yet. In an effort to move quickly on the issue, Quigely and Rigell decided to bring the matter to the appropriations process, offering the bill’s language as an amendment to the Defense Appropriations Bill.

Quigley framed the amendment (the discussion starts at 2:37:14) as a response to political ethics and corruption scandals that have eroded the public’s trust in government. He proposed that part of the solution was to be as transparent as possible. Quigley went on to note that the language was both bipartisan and bicameral (similar legislation was also introduced in the Senate), that both CRS and GPO were consulted, and that the provisions had been crafted to address all concerns raised by Members of Congress and CRS.

Rigell emphasized that this was a common-sense amendment. He reported that those with the resources could currently pay to get access to CRS reports through third party providers who post the reports almost immediately upon release. The end result is that only the public, whose taxpayer dollars funded the reports in the first place, is left without access. Rigell stressed that CRS reports are “the best sources of information” and his belief that “the American people, if given good information, make good decisions.”

Both Chairman Tom Graves (R-GA) and Ranking Member Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) of the Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee spoke in opposition to the amendment.

Graves disagreed that all CRS reports were made available through third parties and claimed that only those chosen to be made public by a Member of Congress were collected and posted. He also expressed concern that the amendment would disclose CRS responses to requests from individual Members, which could in turn dissuade Members from asking for information. This objection directly ignored one of Quigley’s introduction remarks clarifying that only formal CRS reports would be disclosed and that CRS responses to requests from Members of Congress would not be disclosed.

Wasserman Schultz expressed general support for congressional transparency but then objected to the amendment based on concerns about “changing the role that the Congressional Research Service plays.” She also implied that making the reports available to the public would slow down CRS research. Both points seem to be big leaps from the simple proposal that formal reports be posted. CRS reports have always undergone a rigorous review process before being published and circulated to Congress. There is little reason to believe posting them publicly would require any significantly burdensome new process.

Despite the fairly weak objections raised, the Committee voted the amendment down 18-32 along mostly party lines, with all but 5 Democrats voting for the provision and all but 3 Republicans voting against it.

Quigley then proposed an even simpler amendment that would have posted online a list of the names of all formal CRS reports, so that members of the public might learn about the reports’ existence and more easily request copies from Members of Congress. Again, Graves and Wasserman Schultz opposed the amendment. And the committee again voted the proposal down.

While the stand-alone legislation to open CRS to the public remains as a vehicle for moving this issue forward, the Appropriations Committee’s lack of understanding or interest in moving the amendment indicates that a great deal of resistance remains.