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Advocates Push for Transparency at CRS

Government transparency advocates are pressing for the next head of the Congressional Research Service to make its reports public.

As the government-run policy research agency searches for a new director, a coalition of 38 groups has sent a letter to the Library of Congress urging it to pick someone who will make CRS reports available to the public for free.

Advocates have long sought to free the reports, written by the agency for Members of Congress. Many are available already from third-party sources, some of which charge for access.

CQ Roll Call, which publishes Roll Call, is among the companies that sells CRS reports.

“The public needs access to these non-confidential CRS reports in order to discharge their civic duties,” the groups wrote. “American taxpayers spend over $100 million a year to fund CRS … but while the reports are non-classified and play a critical role in our legislative process, they have never been made available in a consistent and official way to members of the public.”

The former head of the Congressional Research Service, Daniel Mulhollan, retired in April after 17 years in the post. The CRS began the search for a new Director this month, and transparency advocates hope to use the transition to open up the traditionally secretive agency.

The Congressional Research Service researches and writes reports for lawmakers on the analytical and technical aspects of relevant political events.

The reports are influential but they’re not always easy to get. According to the Sunlight Foundation, a non-profit which promotes transparency in government, newspapers cited CRS reports 779 times in the past two years, while federal courts, including the Supreme Court, cited the reports 130 times.

The reports are not confidential, but the CRS will not provide them directly to citizens, and there is no publicly available archive. Instead, taxpayers must request the reports directly from their Representative (these constituent requests are the lowest level of priority for Congressional staffers), rely on government watchdog agencies to collect and release them, or buy them from one of the few private companies that have sprung-up to fill the void.

“[The CRS] can release anywhere from 10 to 20 reports a day,” said Walter Seager, owner of Penny Hill Press, which sells CRS reports to the public. “It takes a lot of manpower to keep up. It’s a lot of shoe leather, cauliflower ear and hard work to get those reports.”

Members of Congress have access to the reports through an internal server. Daniel Schuman, policy counsel to the Sunlight Foundation, said it would be cheap and easy to provide broader public access.

“It’s flipping a switch to get these out there,” he said. “They’ve maintained [an internal] website for years and the reports are already digital, so the cost would be minimal. Or they could just release them in bulk and let third parties sort them out.”

Providing the reports to the public was not originally charged to the Library of Congress because of a restriction dating back to 1952. The stipulation, which pre-dates the formation of the research service, says that no money is to be allocated to publishing material generated by the Library of Congress.

Schuman said the spirit of the regulation is no longer relevant.

“The concern back then was the time it would take to print hundreds of thousands of copies, and the costs associated with distributing them,” he said. “The Internet solved that problem.”

Still, officials with the Congressional Research Service say that the argument against full access goes beyond how easy or inexpensive it might be to distribute the material. They said the CRS reports directly to Congress, not taxpayers, and that its only charge is to provide Members with the information they need to legislate.

“The Congressional Research Service works exclusively for Congress, as outlined in the statutory language establishing the service,” said spokeswoman Janine D’Addario. “It is up to individual Members and committees to make our products available to the public via the Web or other means, as they deem appropriate.”

Some Members are working to change that. Earlier this year Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) sent a letter to the Clerk of the House calling for “the development and adoption of new electronic data standards to help make legislative information more open.”

Reps. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) and Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) have introduced a bill which would create a website where the public could search, sort and download all non-classified congressional reports. A companion bill is now in the Senate.

“Congress’ approval rating is historically low right now, and the only way to earn back public trust is through this kind of transparency,” said Quigley spokesman Ben Strauss. “Nobody really opposes this, it’s just a matter of pushing it through.”

Even Seager, who makes a living selling the reports, is open to the idea.

“From an ethical standpoint, yes, the reports should be available,” he said. “That wouldn’t be great for me personally, but this is a family business and I’m 72. Maybe it’s time to retire.”

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