House Appropriators Turn Back Public Access to CRS Reports, but Not Without a Fight

Today the House of Representatives’ Appropriations Committee debated two amendments that would make Congressional Research Service reports more equitably available to the public. The effort to release the reports was led by Rep. Mike Quigley (D-IL) and Rep. Scott Rigell (R-VA).

Here is the bill considered by the committee and the committee report. We submitted testimony to the committee with a number of recommendations for action and we strongly support public access to CRS reports.

Equal Access to CRS Reports

Rep. Quigley’s first offered an amendment to level the playing field for all Americans to have equal access to the reports. His amendment in essence is the text of the bipartisan, bicameral legislation introduced by Reps. Lance and Quigley and Sens. McCain and Leahy.

The amendment applies only to written CRS products that are widely available to all Congressional offices 90 days after enactment of the legislation. It does not apply to private advice or support given to congressional member offices, such as one-on-one conversations, memos, and emails.

The legislation requires CRS reports to be made available on the Government Publishing Office’s website. GPO has significant expertise in making government documents available to the public. It also avoids placing an online publication burden on CRS or the Library of Congress, which houses CRS.

Both the website containing CRS reports and each individual report will contain language explaining that CRS products are created at the behest of and for the use of Congress and should not be relied upon for purposes others than a public understanding of the information given to Congress. In addition, they will explain that the reports are not subject to copyright except to the extent they contain copyrighted material from third parties.

The legislation declares it has no effect on the speech or debate clause of the U.S. Constitution. It also affirms that the legislation should not be construed to waive any congressional control over private communications. Additionally, it permits the CRS Director the discretion to remove the name and contact information for staff who write the reports.

Altogether, these provisions ensure timely public access to CRS reports. At the same time, they address concerns raised by CRS regarding constitutional protections, burdens to implement public access, and potential effects of widespread access on CRS’s ability to fulfill its mission.

Unfortunately, the amendment failed by a vote of 18–32 (the committee clerk erroneously tallied it as 18–31). All Republicans opposed the effort except Reps. Kevin Yoder (KS), Scott Rigel (VA), and David Young (IA). All Democrats supported the effort except Rep. Nita Lowey (NY), Jose Serrano (NY), Sanford Bishop (GA), Betty McCollum (MN), and Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Chakka Fattah did not vote. Oddly enough, Rep. Lowey had supported legislation in the 1990s to make the reports publicly available. All members who supported the effort deserve praise for fighting for transparency and a better-informed public.

Rep. Quigley persuasive argued that the real cost of corruption is the loss of public trust, which you can regain only by being as transparent as possible. The public asks Congress on what basis are you making your decisions? Releasing the reports answers that questions. All Americans should have equal access to the non-confidential reports. He urged Congress to elevate the debate.

Rep. Rigell argued that public access is common sense. They American people pay for the reports. And the American people, when given good information, make good decisions. These reports are essential to that process.

Rep. Graves, chairman of the Legislative Branch Appropriations subcommittee, opposed the measure. He erroneously confused the non-confidential reports at the heart of Rep. Quigley’s bill with the confidential, bespoke advice provided to members of Congress by CRS. He also argued that a Member has the choice of making the reports the Member requests available to the public, which is a misstatement. CRS reports are almost always written at the direction of a CRS employee, not a Member of Congress, and the reports are widely distributed to all Members of Congress. It is the confidential, bespoke memoranda that a single representative who requested the report may, or may not, release to the public. Any member may release a general distribution report to the public.

Rep. Wasserman Schultz, the ranking member of the Legislative Branch Appropriations committee, also argued against public access. She argued that releasing reports to the public would force CRS to impose “a long and arduous approval process” for the reports that would slow them down. In fact, CRS already puts reports through an arduous, multi-stage review process because they know the reports will become publicly available. Thus, equal public access would not change the process at all. She also argued that releasing the reports would change the role of CRS in providing advice to members of Congress at the discretion of the Member. In fact, the general distribution reports that are the focus of the bill have nothing to do with confidential advice to Members.

This letter from 41 organizations in support of public access to CRS reports addresses commonly-raised concerns in its appendix, including the misconceptions stated by the subcommittee chair and ranking member. Former CRS employees with more than 500 years of service also support public access.

Watch the debate here.

Public Access to a List of CRS Reports

Rep. Quigley offered a second amendment to require CRS to publish online a cumulative, continuously-updated list of all new CRS Reports. The list would contain the name of the report, its unique ID number, and the report status (new, updated, or withdrawn.) This requirement applies to widely-shared CRS Reports and would not apply to confidential memoranda prepared by CRS at the request of member. It would make it easier for constituents to identify the reports they would wish to access.

Rep. Quigley offered this amendment last Congress, but withdrew it while committing to continue the efforts to improve public access. He has more than made good on his promise. CRS already generates a list of new and updated reports and publishes them in its annual report to Congress. However, it releases to the public a silently redacted version that does not include the list of reports. (See, for example, this full report versus the truncated report.)

This amendment would have ensured the public has timely, complete access to a list of all CRS reports. It failed on a voice vote.

Rep. Quigley argued that releasing the list of the reports would allow citizens to know which reports exist, so they can request them from members of Congress.

Rep Graves rose to oppose the measure on the same basis he opposed the previous one. Rep. Wasserman Schultz also opposed, arguing that releasing a list of reports would be the “camels’ nose under the tent…. It’s a way to accomplish the goal of the previous amendment.”

Of course, as mentioned above, CRS already gathers a list of all of its reports in its annual report to Congress, of which it publishes a silently redacted version online. (We have the full versions going back to 1995 here.) It is a new argument that the American people cannot even know the titles of the reports, and it cuts against the argument that it’s up to members of Congress to provide them upon public request. In fact, it is the policy of the other chamber, the Senate, that members and committees should proactively release the reports online, a policy going back at least to 1998.

You can watch this debate, including Mr. Quigley’s expressive final comment, here.