American taxpayers support the nearly $140 million million a year expenditures of the Congressional Research Service, an independent and highly influential think tank housed within the Library of Congress. The agency’s mission is to advise members and committees of Congress by providing objective, nonpartisan analysis. This typically includes explaining the workings of government agencies, the intricacies of complex policy issues in a range of disciplines and evaluating expensive, but often ineffective, government programs.
This research can be an invaluable resource for lawmakers and their staff, helping guide and inform key decisions in the policymaking process. At the same time, while taxpayers foot the bill, they are left out of the discussion, with no way to access this research short of calling their congressional office to ask for copies of each report.
This makes no sense. Most other government agencies can and do release their research. There is no reason the more than 1,200 new “general-distribution products” generated each year by CRS cannot also be made public.
That’s why we’re launching EveryCRSReport.com, a project to make all nonconfidential CRS reports available in one place for free (after all, you’ve already paid for it). The project is led by the Congressional Data Coalition, a cross-partisan partnership to promote open legislative information, whose members include Americans for Tax Reform, Demand Progress, the Sunlight Foundation and the R Street Institute. The site will grant the public access to more than 8,000 reports and report updates in one searchable database (it does not include confidential memoranda or private correspondence).
We don’t want to be in the business of hosting government reports. In the digital age, the government itself could and should be doing it. Legislation has been introduced in both chambers of Congress by a bipartisan group of members – led by Reps. Leonard Lance, R-N.J., and Mike Quigley, D-Ill., and Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. – that calls for CRS to publish these reports officially through the website govinfo.gov. However, the bill still needs greater public support and awareness to overcome stubborn and spurious opposition from high-ranking members, such as Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., and Tom Graves, R-Ga., who prefer to go about business as usual without inviting public scrutiny.
CRS was founded in 1914 as the Legislative Reference Service and originally adopted a policy of not making its reports publicly available due to concerns about the excessive cost to print and distribute them. This was justifiable at the time, since it was not the agency’s primary mission to serve the general public and, logistically, it would have led to unnecessary costs. In the digital age, this issue no longer exists. The Congressional Budget Office, which produces research on economic and budget issues and produces estimates of legislation, freely releases its work to the public online. So, too, does the Government Accountability Office, which investigates and audits government agencies and practices.
That’s not to say that CRS research is completely unavailable to the public. Congressional offices are free to distribute reports to curious constituents or other individuals on request. Thousands of reports can be found by a cursory Google search. Lobbyists and other D.C. insiders also can access the reports through expensive subscription services.
There’s no classified information in any of the reports on EveryCRSReport.com whose release could cause any harm. There should also be no concern that publishing would violate the privacy of report authors; the contact information of CRS analysts is redacted from the reports on our site. Regardless, other government agencies freely list authors’ contact information with their research, so this concern holds little merit.
The American public deserves to know what Congress knows. This ought not be a polarizing or partisan claim. It’s simply a matter of bringing government into the 21st century. There is broad support for making CRS research public. Groups on the left and the right, journalists, scholars, students, members of Congress and even former CRS employees all have supported public access to these reports. It’s time for Congress to be accountable to taxpayers and make this research public.
Norquist is President of Americans for Tax Reform. Graves is Technology Policy Program Director at the R Street Institute and Co-founder of the Congressional Data Coalition.