March 11, 2016
Last week bipartisan legislation was introduced in both the Senate and House that would require the Government Printing Office to post all Congressional Research Service (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 website.
As we have previously mentioned the formal reports by the CRS are unavailable to the public. That in the midst of our modern information age Congress continues to withhold hundreds of relevant and informative CRS reports produced each year—produced with millions of taxpayer dollars—is as shocking as it is disappointing.
But all of that may be about to change.
The legislation, called the Equal Access to Congressional Research Service Reports Act of 2016, was introduced by Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and John McCain (R-AZ) in the Senate and by Representatives Leonard Lance (R-NJ) and Mike Quigley (D-IL) in the House.
Leahy emphasized the fairness of posting these reports, explaining that “Outside of Congress, for decades these reports have been ‘public’ only for insiders who can afford to pay a subscription fee.” McCain noted how the information would empower the public, stating, “By making these taxpayer-funded reports free and publicly available…voters will have access to an invaluable tool to make informed decisions on topics ranging from Obamacare and federal spending to tax reform and other important issues.”
Lance said “It is 2016, any student, reporter, taxpayer or interested citizen should be able to view these reports online,” underscoring how out of step the current policy is with modern-day norms.
A coalition of 40 civil society organizations, libraries, think tanks, and other groups (including the Project On Government Oversight) issued a statement of support thanking the co-sponsors and urging relevant committees to quickly approve the legislation.
There is no indication yet whether the legislation will pass during this session. All too often the best bills can become permanently stuck in some part of the legislative process for reasons ranging from lack of genuine interest to partisan gridlock. But the CRS bill has a few things that could help it move. First, it is a change that is long overdue. POGO and other groups have been advocating for the posting of CRS reports since at least 2003, and with each passing year the secrecy around CRS reports becomes more and more difficult to justify. Second, the proposal has bipartisan support, both among its cosponsors in Congress and from the outside groups supporting the idea. Most notably the outside support includes former CRS employees that represent more than 500 years of combined CRS experience. And finally, the change would be neither costly nor disruptive (despite the claims made by CRS) since these reports are already made widely available to staff online. Furthermore, the bill would not make confidential memos to Congress public, and would not infringe on CRS’s ability to provide counsel to staff and Members of Congress. Other government research organizations such as the Government Accountability Office have long publicly posted their materials without harming their ability to support Congress. Here’s hoping this is enough to finally convince Congress to shed some sunlight on CRS reports.
Sean Moulton is the Open Government Program Manager at POGO.
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