Make CRS Reports Available to All
[editors note: This post from CDT Deputy Director Ari Schwartz originally appeared on the Open House Project blog.] American taxpayers spend over $100 million a year to fund the Congressional Research Service (CRS), which generates detailed reports relevant to current political events for lawmakers. But while the reports are non-classified, and play a critical role in our political process, neither Congress nor the CRS makes them freely available to the public. To fill that inexplicable void, private entities have begun selling CRS reports, providing lobbyists inside access at a price, while ordinary citizens (whose tax dollars fund the reports in the first place) are left out in the cold. I hope that Speaker Pelosi will rectify this inequity and provide pubic access to all public CRS reports via the Web. I can't say it any better than Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) who have co-sponsored a bill that would finally make the reports available to the public. Said McCain: "It is not fair for the American people to have to pay a third party for out-of-date products for which they have already footed the bill." Adds Leahy: "CRS performs invaluable research and produces first-rate reports on hundreds of topics. American taxpayers have every right to have direct access to these wonderful resources." Indeed, CRS reports provide non-biased, non-partisan analysis of the myriad subjects they cover. They are well researched and generally provide a useful introduction and more detailed facts that would be a perfect resource for the curious citizen. What's more, the reports are a major tool for lawmakers considering new legislation, and as such are of tremendous value to advocates, researchers and academics. Not surprisingly, the reports are also phenomenally popular with the public when they are made available. In 2005, my organization, the Center for Democracy & Technology launched the now wildly popular OpenCRS Web site. We collect CRS reports from a number of sources including collections from groups -- such as the Federation of American Scientists and the National Council for Science and the Environment -- and from individual citizens who obtain the copies of the reports from their elected representatives and then submit them to OpenCRS. OpenCRS contains 11,491 CRS reports and averages over 5,000 reports downloaded per day for a total of more than 3 million report downloads in less than two years. We built OpenCRS after becoming outraged that companies were charging up to $50 per report, which (in its own warped way) is another measure of their popularity. The creators of OpenCRS would gladly welcome the posting of all reports from an official source. This would allow us to stop spending effort on gathering and posting reports and focus instead on adding functionality for the public, and maybe even for Congress. And what's more, as happy as we are with the success of OpenCRS it will never be an adequate substitute for an official government site providing no-cost, real-time access to all of the CRS reports as they are published. Critics of providing direct access to CRS reports suggest that it will change the way that Members of Congress must operate. In the words of Former Chairman of the House Administration Committee Bob Ney (R-OH), the biggest critic of posting CRS reports in the past: "Let's say that I'm working on an issue and I'm trying to look for some research that helps me to get my point across and, all of a sudden, the Congressional Research Service sends me over something and I read it and I say, 'Oh, no, that's not going to help.' Let someone else do the research. Why give your opposition free research?" The Toledo Blade responded to Ney's concern very aptly in its 2003 editorial: "We would answer that question by simply pointing out to Mr. Ney that he doesn't own the information produced at taxpayer expense, the American public does. And anyone - everyone - has a right to see it." Making CRS reports directly available to the public would help provide transparency and accountability to the House's daily business and would bring an end to a system that unfairly rewards those that have connections or the right resources to get special access to reports that are the rightful property of all taxpayers.