The campaign to publicly release government reports that provide policy and legal guidance to Congress were the focus of a recent New York Times article by Stephanie Strom. She writes that the Center for Democracy and Technology is spearheading efforts to give the public access to non-confidential Congressional Research Service reports. CRS is Congress’s “think tank.”
CRS reports cover a wide variety of issues and shape legislation and policy. They are written for consumption by members of Congress and their staff and usually cover a discrete issue area. (This contrasts with CRS memoranda, which are usually written at the request of a particular member or staffer and respond to a specific question.) Each year, Congress spends more than $100 million on CRS.
Sunlight Foundation Executive Director Ellen Miller praised newly reintroduced legislation that would make available non-confidential CRS reports as an “easy transparency reform.” The legislation, introduced by Senator Lieberman, would require all non-confidential reports be made available online.
As matters current stand, congressional offices release individual CRS reports to constituents upon request, and an incomplete archive of “leaked” reports is available online at opencrs.org, courtesy of CDT. In addition, a number of federal agencies, including the Department of Justice and the State Department, maintain an online repository.
A spokesperson for CRS told the New York Times that it’s “Congress’s call” to release the reports. The agency’s advice to Congress on the matter has historically been less reserved. This 1998 CRS memo advised Congress that proposals to “disseminate CRS products directly to the public would fundamentally change this longstanding congressional policy [of distributing CRS products to non-congressional users through congressional offices on a selective basis], with potentially significant institutional and legal consequences for CRS and current congressional operations and practices.” (emphasis added)
In a lengthy analysis, former General Counsel to the House of Representatives Stan Brand disagreed with CRS’s conclusions. He wrote “the concerns expressed in the CRS memorandum are either overstated, or the extent they are not, provide no basis for arguing that protection of CRS works will be weakened by your bill.” Brand refers to legislation introduced by Senator McCain in 1998 to make CRS reports publicly available. (The current legislation introduced by Senator Lieberman is co-sponsored by Senator McCain, and is substantially similar to the 1998 legislation). CRS needs to grapple with Mr. Brand’s critiques.
The public has a right to know the non-confidential advice that CRS provides to Congress. Arguing that CRS reports should remain secret is a non-starter, considering that many of them are already public. Their widespread use demonstrates their value, and Brand’s memo more than addresses many of CRS’s long standing institutional concerns. It is time to shine some sunlight on CRS.
Disclosures: I worked as a legislative attorney for the Congressional Research Service from 2006-2007. I also briefly interned for Senator Lieberman in September-October 2001. Sunlight Foundation has provided funding to CDT to make CRS reports publicly available. The Project on Government Oversight has additional resources on efforts to make CRS reports publicly available. Sunlight Foundation released recommendations regarding CRS as part of its Open House Project.