15 Reasons Congressional Research Service Reports Should Be Made More Widely Available to the Public

I worked at the Congressional Research Service for 11 years as an analyst and manager. I greatly enjoyed supplying congressional staff, committees, and members of Congress with nonpartisan research and advice. I got to help conceptualize legislation, assist committees with hearing preparation and testify before Congress. It was fun, heady work.

I also wrote a lot of CRS reports, as did my beloved colleagues. Each year, the agency publishes about 1,000 reports, which cover general subject matter, like advertising by the federal government and cloture in the U.S. Senate. Congress, not the CRS, owns them. That means nobody at the CRS is free to distribute its reports to anyone outside Congress — not without jumping through bureaucratic hoops.

Unfortunately, our national legislature, as a matter of practice, does not publish all CRS reports in one place, like Congress.gov. CRS reports get posted here and there on various congressional webpages. Additionally, any member or congressional staffer can share reports with the public; it’s a congressional prerogative. As a result, there are CRS reports floating all over the Internet. By one count, there are 27,000 CRS reports scattered over 1,400 U.S. government websites.

It is a bizarre situation: there is not de jure public release of CRS reports, but there sorta is de facto publication. This policy is irrational, inefficient and costly. Here are 15 reasons Congress should release all CRS reports to the public:

  • Taxpayers pay more than $100 million to operate the CRS. It only seems fair that they have easy access to CRS reports. But they do not.
  • Beltway insiders easily can access CRS reports through pricy subscription services and get them from people who work on Capitol Hill. The average American cannot. This is grossly inequitable.
  • CRS reports do not contain classified, sensitive or secret information. No harm can come from their release.
  • Libraries should not have to pay for government-produced information. But they do. They must pay private subscription services to access CRS reports.
  • The Internet is awash in lies and half-truths about government. CRS reports carry nonpartisan, factual descriptions and analyses that explain government agencies and programs. CRS also publishes guides that explain how Congress works. Making CRS reports widely available, then, can serve as an antiseptic to the toxic rumors and misinformation.
  • The media often get things wrong. Allowing broader access to CRS reports would help media avoid needless errors.
  • I have seen members of Congress mischaracterize the contents of CRS reports to justify their positions and claims. Broad public access to CRS reports would increase the odds of such deception being exposed.
  • Expanding public access to CRS reports is not a partisan issue. It is good government and a matter of fairness. There is bipartisan support for publishing CRS reports on House.gov or one of the other public congressional websites. Reps. Leonard Lance, R-N.J. and Mike Quigley, D-Ill., are the most recent advocates.
  • Forty diverse groups, including those representing librarians, scientists and civil-liberty advocates, support more equitable public access to CRS reports.
  • Contrary to the claims of some individuals, there never has been a policy that CRS reports must stay secret. For decades, Congress has been releasing some CRS to the public. This 1979 CRS annual report shows dozens of CRS reports published as congressional committee prints or introduced into the Congressional Record.
  • Making CRS reports more widely available to the public will not hurt their quality. Rather, it may well improve them, as CRS experts will be freed to share them with outside experts for feedback. That is how experts learn more and produce better work. Besides, CRS already produces information for public consumption, such as the Constitution Annotated, the bill summaries found at CRS.gov, a 400-page volume called The Evolving Congress and even debate materials for high schoolers.
  • CRS.gov, the Congress-only website where CRS posts its reports, went down for the better part of a week last summer. Congress lost all access to CRS reports. Backing up CRS reports to a public site like Congress.gov would increase the odds that 24/7 congressional access to CRS reports would be maintained.
  • Retired and former CRS employees with more than 500 years of CRS service signed a letter supporting public release of CRS reports.
  • The current policy is bad for CRS employees. They cannot freely share their work with peers in academia, think tanks and other research environments. Unlike experts at the Government Accountability Office and Congressional Budget Office, CRS employees cannot list their publications on their LinkedIn pages. CRS Managers, who have much better things to do, are forced to police the release of their analysts’ work, which sows enmity among employees.
  • Creating a public CRS reports website would save tons of congressional and CRS staff time. Right now, the public writes Congress when it has a problem, the congressional staffer contacts CRS and then a CRS analyst or research librarian will send over a copy of a CRS report that answers the constituent’s question. This is grossly inefficient. The public should be free and encouraged to seek answers to basic questions about government (e.g., “How much is spent on the Department of Agriculture yearly?”) from Congress.gov or another public website that carries CRS reports.

The arguments against expanding public access are outdated and bogus. Congress can and should vote promptly to adopt a resolution, which would not need the president’s signature , to post CRS reports on Congress.gov or another public website. Doing so will cost nearly nothing and it will bring many benefits.

For further discussion of this subject, watch this October 2015 video of a bipartisan discussion on the merits of expanding public access to CRS reports.