Monday, June 25, 2007

Congressional Research Service -- A Well Informed Electorate Makes Democracy Stronger

Have you ever heard of the Congressional Research Service? According to its official website the "Congressional Research Service is the public policy research arm of the United States Congress. As a legislative branch agency within the Library of Congress, CRS works exclusively and directly for Members of Congress, their Committees and staff on a confidential, nonpartisan basis." It prides itself of doing really great research on any question asked by a Member of Congress. Since it serves all the Members, it's positions are always non-partisan and generally well grounded in fact. It's reports are highly respected by all of the Members. It is every Congress Member's secret weapon. Last year we, the taxpayers, spent over $106,000,000 on the CRS. You will notice that it works exclusively for Members of Congress. It doesn't provide information to you or me.

Well that isn't exactly right. According the OpenHouse Project, "former members of Congress, including many who have become lobbyists, have access to CRS reports. In addition, for-pay services such as Penny Hill Press, Gallery Watch, Lexis-Nexis and Westlaw offer these reports." So if you are well connected you too can have access to the research your $106,000,000 paid for. Trust me, as a subscriber to Lexis-Nexis and a former subscriber to Westlaw, the reports aren't cheap.

Some free services compile CRS reports in a haphazard way. Stephen Young, reference librarian at The Catholic University of America, says that over thirty Web sites offer CRS reports at no cost. A good example is A look will tell you that they have collected lots of good information, but nothing like the comprehensive collection the Library of Congress has accumulated.

If you are still reading this you are probably wondering where this is leading. The answer is simple. The OpenHouseProject is spearheading a campaign to make public the general reports produced by the CRS. So far they have met with a lot of resistance.

First, while over the years several important Members of Congress including Patrick Leahy, John McCain, Trent Lott, Joe Lieberman, Tom Harkin, Trent Lott, Jim DeMint, Tom Coburn, and Mike Enzi have supported making CRS reports generally available, others view the CRS Reports as "valuable constituent services." Famously Ted Stevens views the CRS as an extension of his staff. He wants to make sure only the people he wants to see the product of our taxpayer dollars see the reports while the rest of us don't.

Second CRS is institutionally opposed to public review of its work. According to a May report in the Secrecy News

CRS director Daniel P. Mulhollan in a lengthy internal memorandum (pdf) last month.

"The reasons for limiting public distribution of our work can be summarized as follows," he wrote.

"First, there is a danger that placing CRS in an intermediate position [between Congress and the public] would threaten the dialog on policy issues between Members and their constituents."

"Second, the current judicial ... perception of CRS as 'adjunct staff' of the Congress might be altered if CRS were seen as speaking directly to the public, putting at risk Speech or Debate Clause constitutional protections afforded the confidential work performed by this agency."

"And third, if CRS products were routinely disseminated broadly to the public, over time these products might come to be written with a large public audience in mind and would no longer be focused solely on congressional needs."
Steven Aftergood, the author of the Secrecy News article concludes that
The arguments detailed by Mr. Mulhollan seem singularly unpersuasive to an outsider. CRS is not being called upon to mediate between Congress and the public or to engage in a public dialog on policy issues. Rather, proponents of broader dissemination are simply asking for the same public access that commercial vendors of CRS reports already enjoy.
There are two other groups with vested interests in denying taxpayers easy and free access to CRS reports. First, there are the various publishing houses. They make a lot of money securing and publishing CRS reports. Second, lobbyists don't want to share. In Washington knowledge is power. Access to a CRS report unavailable to the other guy might just give a lobbyist an advantage, and that's power.

Here are the recommendations of the OpenHouseProject, with which I fully agree. Give them some thought and if you also agree, write your Congress Member or Senator, and tell him or her to support the OpenHouseProject in its efforts to make CRS reports easily available.

The House should pass a resolution directing the clerk of the House to work with CRS to create a publicly accessible database of a selection of CRS written products. Not all CRS products need be included in the database. While CRS Issue Briefs, reports generally available to members of Congress and CRS Authorization of Appropriations Products ought to be generally included, reports requested by individual members who do not wish to make the report public and reports containing confidential information certainly need not be made public. In addition, aspects of reports that may raise issues for public distribution, including the names of report authors and copyrighted material, should be addressed in any policy reforms. These concerns, however, should not prevent the other parts of the reports from being publicly distributed.
Better yet, tell your Congress Member to support H.R.2545, The Congressional Research Accessibility Act introduced May 24, 2007, by Representatives Shays, Inslee, and Price.