Open CRS Bill Introduced in House and Senate — Coalition Expresses Its Support

Today Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Representatives Leonard Lance (R-NJ) and Mike Quigley (D-IL) introduced in the House and Senate legislation directing the online publication of Congressional Research Service reports that are available for general congressional access. A coalition of 40 civil society and grassroots organizations, libraries, trade associations, think tanks, and businesses from across the political spectrum released this statement in support of the legislation:

We, the undersigned organizations, endorse the Equal Access to Congressional Research Service Reports Act of 2016. The legislation provides the public timely, comprehensive, free access to Congressional Research Service reports.
We commend Sens. John McCain and Patrick Leahy and Reps. Leonard Lance and Mike Quigley for their tireless efforts to ensure equitable access for all Americans to these documents, which provide insight into the important issues before Congress and are paid for by taxpayers.
We urge the Senate’s Committee on Rules and Administration and the House of Representative’s Committee on House Administration to speedily approve the legislation.

A press release from Senator Leahy is here. Here are statements from the co-sponsors.

Senator Leahy:

Outside of Congress, for decades these reports have been ‘public’ only for insiders who can afford to pay a subscription fee. That’s not very ‘public’ and does nothing for the average citizen in Vermont or the rest of the country. Our bill will open up this invaluable, taxpayer-funded resource for use by all Americans and by schools and libraries. CRS was founded on principles of nonpartisanship and the belief that accurate, thoughtful information should inform the policy conversations of the day. It is a testament to the best ideals of Congress, and all Americans should benefit from the work and resources it provides.

Senator McCain:

I’m proud to support this bipartisan, good-government bill to provide the American people with free access to the Congressional Research Service’s (CRS) high-quality, unbiased and fact-based policy reports. By making these taxpayer-funded reports free and publicly available, Congress will be able to better serve their constituents, and 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.

Representative Lance:

It is 2016, any student, reporter, taxpayer or interested citizen should be able to view these reports online. These reports are paid for by taxpayer funds, the taxpayers should be able to read them. It is past time to end the era of secrecy to these reports and open them to the benefit of research, reporting and public information.

Representative Quigley:

Opening CRS reports to the public would empower our constituents with vital information about the key issues, policies, and budgets we’re debating here in Congress, increasing government transparency and giving the public the tools they need to hold their government accountable. It’s time to allow the American people to access the same neutral, unbiased, nonpartisan information that we in Congress rely on every day. I am proud to introduce the Equal Access to Congressional Research Service Reports Act with Senators Leahy and McCain and Congressman Lance, and I will continue working with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle until non-confidential CRS reports are open to all.

Summary of Legislation

The Equal Access to Congressional Research Service Reports Act of 2016 takes a measured approach to public access to CRS reports. It 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. This is in accordance with congressional policy, exemplified in this 1998 Senate Rules Committee memo, which declares “we believe it is appropriate for Members and Committees to use their web sites to further disseminate CRS products…. We encourage you to post CRS products to your website.”

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.

With 36,000 reports already available to the public online through free third-party services such as the ones provided by the Federation of American Scientists and CRSReports.org, many more available through paid services, and thousands hosted on government websites, publication of the entire corpus of CRS reports is a remarkable commitment to equitable public access. In light of longstanding partial access and the Senate’s release policy, we do not expect it will have any effect on CRS’s declared policy of non-interaction with the public.

Public Support For Equal Access

The effort to open up CRS reports for equitable public access enjoys broad public support.

Former CRS employees with more than 500 years of combined service with the agency endorsed public access. In an October letter, they wrote:

We believe Congress should provide a central online source for timely public access to CRS reports. That would place all members of the public on an equal footing to one another with respect to access. It would resolve concerns around public and congressional use of the most up-to-date version. Additionally, it would ensure the public can verify it is using an authentic version.

A broad coalition of organization of civic organizations, non-profits, think tanks, grassroots organizations, libraries, and others also support public access. In a November letter, they wrote:

Longstanding congressional policy allows Members and committees to use their websites to disseminate CRS products to the public, although CRS itself may not engage in direct public dissemination. This results in a disheartening inequity. Insiders with Capitol Hill connections can easily obtain CRS reports from any of the 20,000 congressional staffers and well-resourced groups can pay for access from subscription services. However, members of the public can access only a small subset of CRS reports that are posted on an assortment of not-for-profit websites on an intermittent basis.
Now is the time for a systematic solution that provides timely, comprehensive free public access to and preservation of non-confidential reports while protecting confidential communications between CRS and Members and committees of Congress.

And, just recently, a coalition of 12 conservative, free-market organizations recently endorsed public access to CRS reports. In a February letter, they wrote:

Making CRS reports easily accessible by the public will increase transparency in government, and allow everyday citizens access to important information that will better educate them on the issues before Congress.
The bottom line is taxpayers pay for these reports. It is only fair that they have easy access to them.

The appendix to the broad coalition letter addressed concerns often raised by CRS with respect to public access. It suggest four points worth keeping in mind when reviewing possible concerns.

(1) CRS’ concerns often center around CRS itself making the reports available to the public. Current proposals would place publishing responsibilities with another entity.
(2) CRS’ concerns often conflate public access to CRS reports that are generally available to Congress with public access to confidential memoranda and advice. No legislative proposal calls for public access to confidential memoranda.
(3) CRS’ stated concerns also do not identify how CRS’ posture would be adversely affected as compared to the status quo, as Members and committees routinely make reports available to the public and many reports are hosted on third party websites.
(4) CRS has not addressed the benefits to making reports available to the public.

Signatory Organizations

The signatory organizations to today’s statement are: American Association of Law Libraries, American Commitment, American Library Association, Association of Research Libraries, Bill of Rights Defense Committee & Defending Dissent Foundation, Campaign for Liberty, Center for Data Innovation, Center for Responsive Politics, Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, Charles E. Shain Library — Connecticut College, Common Cause, Council for Citizens Against Government Waste, CSU Sacramento , Data Coalition, Demand Progress, Evans Library — Florida Institute of Technology, Free Government Information, FreedomWorks, Heritage Action for America, Hesburgh Libraries — University of Notre Dame, King University Libraries, Liberty Coalition, National Coalition for History, National Security Archive, National Security Counselors, National Taxpayers Union, New America’s Open Technology Institute, OpenTheGovernment.org, Project On Government Oversight (POGO), Public Citizen, Quorum, R Street Institute, Stanford University Libraries, Sunlight Foundation, Taxpayers for Common Sense, Taxpayers Protection Alliance, The Niskanen Center, Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), and University of Missouri — Columbia.

More information

For more information on public access to CRS reports, read Kevin Kosar’s excellent article “Where taxpayers pay ($100 million a year) but interest groups benefit.” Kevin was an analyst and manager at CRS for 11 years. In addition, apanel discussion on this topic, featuring current and former members of congress as well as experts, is available here. (Full disclosure: I moderated the panel.)

More background information than anyone could ever want or need is available on this wiki page on the Congressional Research Service.