The New York Times weighed in last week with an editorial urging the Congressional Research Service (CRS) to release their unclassified formal reports to the public.
“Given the extreme partisanship and gridlock in Congress, it’s more crucial than ever to have an informed electorate,” the op-ed says.
The Project On Government Oversight couldn’t agree more, and has long supported making CRS reports available to the public. The CRS provides Members of Congress and committees with a tremendous amount of information and support each year, responding to thousands of questions and requests. The service also produces hundreds of formal reports for distribution to Congress, updating them as time goes on. Open government advocates have repeatedly asked that those reports be made public because they provide reliable information without the scope of a specific policy agenda.
It should be noted that the CRS typically spends more than $100 million in taxpayers’ money each year to research and produce its reports. Despite spending public money to produce these documents, CRS and many Members of Congress have continued to resist calls to make the information easily available to everyone. The research group maintains that extending access to these nonpartisan, unbiased reports will somehow corrupt or interfere with their objectivity and their ability to serve Congress.
Under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), formal reports would be releasable if CRS were an executive agency. But FOIA law does not cover Congress, so that typical avenue of accessing government information is cut off.
So how are formal CRS reports accessed?
The documents must be requested from a Representative or Senator. And while Members of Congress are often responsive to these types of requests from constituents, there is no requirement that they provide the information.
Unfortunately, making such requests is also needlessly complicated. Published formal reports are not listed publicly. Often, the interested party will have to ask for all existing reports related to a broader topic. Finding exactly what you need is difficult when you don’t know the thousands of formal reports currently published and updated.
The only other option is to go through expensive third-party services such as Lexis-Nexis or Penny Hill Press and subscribe to their extensive and regularly updated collections. Of course, not everyone wishing to be an informed voter is willing to spend $399 on a Penny Hill Press subscription.
Ridiculously enough, subscribers to third-party services are being made to pay twice for the reports—remember, the reports are funded by taxpayers. This results in an unfair division where greater resources can buy access to this useful government information while those who can’t afford such subscriptions are left in the dark.
In contrast, Congress’s other main research entity, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), is a model of transparency and access. The agency posts online the vast majority of the estimated 900 reports and other products it generates each year, and updates its public website daily. Anyone can sign up to receive emails about new reports in various interest areas. In fact, even though the GAO isn’t subject to FOIA, the agency has a disclosure policy that “follows the spirit of the act” and allows the public to request records, ask for expedited processing, and appeal denials. All this without compromising the quality or objectivity of their products.
Steven Aftergood at Federation of American Scientists, which makes available a considerable number of CRS reports free of charge, responded to the New York Times piece, points out that “CRS is playing an increasingly prominent role in informing the public on a wide range of policy issues.”
Such an important resource ought to be accessible to the public, to provide readers with unbiased, non-partisan analysis.
We’re not asking for the moon! Expanding access to the public would not have to take away from the research group’s resources. Given recent legislative branch cuts, it’s understandable if the office has to scale up transparency in stages.
To start, just posting an index of the formal CRS report title would be a substantial improvement—there are thousands of them. And given that CRS already manages a website (which currently only Members of Congress and staff can access), making a portion of the site available to the public should be fairly easy.
It’s past time that CRS joins the rest of government in providing online access to its formal reports.