Last week a multi-year campaign to let the public see Congressional research reports paid off.
On Thursday, Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Representatives Leonard Lance (R-NJ) and Mike Quigley (D-IL) introduced House and Senate versions of the Equal Access to Congressional Research Service Reports Act of 2016 (Open CRS Act; H.R. 4702 and S. 2639). The Open CRS Act aims to publically release the renowned legislative research products produced by the Library of Congress’s Congressional Research Service (CRS) on a public web portal.
CRS works exclusively for Congress. Its researchers respond to policy and legal questions from Members of Congress and their staff. CRS reports are not released to the public, but Congressional offices can do whatever they want with non-confidential reports that they receive. In fact, a 1998 Senate Rules Committee memo encouraged members to use their own websites to share reports.
Most Members of Congress and their offices don’t publish the CRS reports they receive, but many circulate them informally. As a result, most major CRS reports trickle out to well-connected interest groups, but not most taxpayers.
The Open CRS Act changes that. The bill directs the Government Publishing Office (GPO) to publish all major, non-confidential CRS reports. The Open CRS Act would provide a long-overdue reform to an awkward system of proprietary materials and leaked reports.
The Open CRS Act isn’t just about publishing the reports. It’s an open data mandate, too, because it requires that CRS content be available for bulk download and maintained in both human and “structured data format.”
The Data Coalition joined thirty-nine other organizations last week endorsing the Open CRS Act. The Coalition also joined eighteen non-profits yesterday in thank-you letters to the four lead sponsors. Forty organizations may be supporting the Open CRS Act, but one deserves the lion’s share of the credit: the Congressional Data Coalition and its leadership have been fighting to publish CRS reports for the better part of a decade.
Smart legislation for a smarter public
We could have taken time to summarize this bill, but why do that when CRS has already done what they do best? CRS has already provided a concise and timely summary of the convoluted bill text:
This bill directs the Government Printing Office (GPO) to establish and maintain a public Website containing Congressional Research Service (CRS) Reports, and an index, that are searchable, sortable, and downloadable (including downloadable in bulk), for which no fee may be charged.The CRS Reports on the Website shall include CRS Authorization of Appropriations Products, Appropriations Products, and any other written CRS product containing CRS research or CRS analysis available for general congressional access on the CRS Congressional Intranet.The Website shall exclude, however, any:
- custom product or service prepared in direct response to a request for custom analysis or research and not available for general congressional access on the CRS Congressional Intranet;
- CRS Reports, Authorization of Appropriations Products, or Appropriations Products not so available; or
- written CRS products that CRS has made available on a public website (besides this Website) maintained by the GPO or the Library of Congress.The GPO shall ensure that the Website is updated contemporaneously, automatically, and electronically to include each new or updated CRS Report. Before transmitting a CRS Report to the GPO for publication on the Website, CRS may remove from the Report the name of, and any contact information for, any CRS employee. The Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946 is amended to require CRS to comply with this Act.
Before making the case for this effort, let’s pause to consider this summary as a prima facie example of CRS’s value.
Taxpayers pay for that value. They should receive it.