Why I Came To Believe CRS Reports Should be Publicly Available (and Built a Website to Make it Happen)
I first started working for Congress as a senate intern in September 2001. I was 23 years old and had no experience working on policy. I found myself responding to letters from constituents on issues that I’d never heard of previously. It was then that I first encountered the Congressional Research Service and its reports.
The Congressional Research Service, sometimes called Congress’ think-tank, provided introductory classes to orient interns on the service. It was fascinating to see all the different kinds of analysis performed by CRS — and there were rooms filled, just loaded with reports on every issue that you could imagine. CRS also provided classes on how Congress worked. It was a great way to learn.
I worked for Congress for the next year or so, eventually rising to become a (very) low-level staffer. Occasionally I spoke with analysts, but generally speaking the reports often were enough. CRS emphasized that its advice was non-partisan and even-handed. When I left, I did what many departing staff did, and took an armful of reports with me.
After I finished law school, a half-decade later, I came back to Congress. I joined CRS as a legislative attorney. It was my job to provide legal advice to members of Congress on matters concerning telecommunications, terrorism, and the separation of church and state. As the person who was now writing the reports, I was aware in a way I never had been before about the gaps in my knowledge. I also became familiar with gaps in the way CRS reports were written, the idiosyncrasies of management, and the history and role of the agency.
What was surprising to me was the unrelenting insistence by CRS that CRS reports should never be available to the public. Of course, it was understood by everyone who wrote the reports that members of Congress would make them available to the public. But we were never to do so and even the thought of public access — that there were two sides to the issue — was heresy. I never really questioned the matter.
When I left CRS, I went to work in the nonprofit world. I had — and still have — a real interest in making government work better, and I ended up working on governance, transparency, and accountability issues. It was there that I really dug into the question of public access to CRS reports.
CRS used to be a very different agency. It used to provide unvarnished advice for members of Congress on the crucial issues of the day. But over time, and especially during the 1990s, the mode of analysis changed to a description of issues, moving away from an evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses of various courses of action. I don’t mean to overstate this, and there still are many examples of prescient analysis, but CRS changed the way it did its work, in large part because of existential concerns. CRS was concerned about irritating its congressional masters by finding fault in a pet project or cherished belief. The old-timers still had great latitude to share their advice on policy, informed by their expertise, but the agency became sclerotic.
Part of this calcification included a fear of public access to any aspect of CRS’s work. At one time, CRS published a newsletter about its latest research. Later, while its employees still testified before Congress, CRS management became nervous about that testimony and also began to discourage and then generally prohibit from sharing their work even with their academic peers. Agency staff grew more insulated and isolated, focused on managing management and staying out of trouble.
Over time, I came to realize that the policy concerning public access to CRS reports was counterproductive. Members of Congress could get the reports. Lobbyists and special interests could get the reports from Congress or from private vendors for a fee. Former congressional staff could ask their friends on the hill for a copy. But the general public, unless they knew a report existed, really did not have access.
And that’s too bad. CRS reports are written for intelligent people who are not necessarily policy experts. In a world that’s awash with 5 second YouTube ads, horse race political coverage, and the endless screaming and preening of political figures, these reports are a good way to start to understand an issue.
As someone who has developed expertise in several issue areas over the last decade-and-a-half, I can pick out problems with CRS reports on issues that I know about. Sometimes there are significant errors — and sometimes they go uncorrected. But overall, widespread access to CRS reports increases the reservoir of knowledge available to the American people. If the first result for any internet question is Wikipedia, shouldn’t it contain the knowledge that the American people spent $100 million annually to refine? Congressional staff often start their research with Google, for better or for worse. Shouldn’t we make the reports easy for them to find? In addition, public access to CRS reports can help make constituent communications to Congress better by providing useful context for people who have questions about matters of policy.
Public access to CRS reports is also good for CRS. It builds a public base of support for a legislative branch agency that far too often has suffered from the budget axe over the last two decades. As it turns out, the second greatest threat to CRS doing its job is members of Congress. They’re the ones who have an axe to grind (or wield) when policy recommendations don’t come out the way that they want. The greatest threat, of course, can be CRS’s leadership, which can be so desperate to avoid the budget axe it will do anything to stay out of the public eye, including things that hurt the agency in the long run.
Opposition to public access to CRS report is rooted in fears of the unknown. Even though many reports are routinely released by members of Congress, published by committees, and available through third-party web sites, there still remains this unreasoning fear. It is time to conquer that fear.
Today my organization, in concert with others, is published 8,200 CRS reports on a new website, EveryCRSReport.com. We are not the first organization to publish CRS reports. Many others have done so. Nor are we the first to advocate for public access. We’re part of a huge coalition that includes many former CRS employees. But I think we are the first to publish just about all the (non-confidential) reports currently available to members of Congress, in concert with a bipartisan pair of members who are providing the reports to us, and with a method to keep on doing so.
We have tried to address CRS’s concerns. We redacted the contact information for the people who wrote the reports. We added information about why the reports are written and that they’re not subject to copyright. And we added a few bells and whistles to the website, such as letting you know how much a report has changed when it’s been revised.
We think Congress as an institution should publish the reports. We support bicameral, bipartisan legislation to do so. And we hope that our website will help show the way forward.