Making public info public

Library of Congress

The long-running effort to provide the public with online access to Congressional Research Service reports fell short once again this year.

Lawmakers failed to act on measures that would have required that CRS reports be posted online.

CRS is a research unit of the Library of Congress and produces reports and studies on a variety of public policy issues. These reports are available only to lawmakers and their staff.

In the latest action, Reps. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) and Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) introduced the Congressional Research Accessibility Act on Nov. 21, which would have required CRS to make all of its reports available to the public online within 40 days after they are issued to Congress.

"CRS products are created with taxpayers' dollars, and the taxpayers should have access to the information," Shays said. "There is no logical reason why this information should be held under lock and key."

Past efforts to require that CRS reports be posted online have failed in part because of a concern that public online access may subject CRS to legal liability.

CRS officials did not respond to requests for comment. However, in a July 28 letter to Shays, CRS Director Daniel Mulhollan said service officials are concerned about the potential for increased costs. He also said public availability would denigrate the protection of confidential communication.

The House bill follows a pilot program conducted earlier this year, in which CRS reports were available online at individual lawmakers' Web sites. The pilot program, which provided only a portion of CRS reports, ended in September.

With the end of the pilot phase, members of Congress who provided access to CRS reports through their office Web sites no longer make the reports available.

However, the reports are still available on the Internet from private organizations such as Penny Hill Press, which charges for access to the reports. Public access advocates argue that providing free, open access is a fundamental part of CRS' mission.

"We feel that [public access] is long overdue," said Beth Daley, director of communications for the Project on Government Oversight, a Washington, D.C.-based interest group.

"CRS plays a key role in informing policy-makers, and for that information not to be accessible to the public is really unfortunate," Daley said.

OMB Watch, a nonprofit research organization, said CRS operations cost taxpayers more than $80 million each year.

The House bill included exceptions to the posting requirement. Confidential research or reports created specifically for a congressional office or committee would be exempt from public posting.

However, similar resolutions have met little enthusiasm in the past and failed to generate sufficient congressional support.

A bill asking for public access was introduced in the Senate last February by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.).

This would be the second consecutive year that such a resolution died. The two senators made a similar proposal in 2002, but it too failed to make it to the Senate floor.

McCain in particular has pushed legislation for this online access many times in the past, with proposals dating back to 1998.

Leahy said that despite the history of setbacks, there is still support for providing public access to CRS reports.

"The public interest too often gets short shrift when special interests are dominating Congress' agenda, and that's a fact Sen. McCain and I have encountered in getting action on this good-government bill," Leahy said. "We will continue to push for this reform in the new legislative session that starts in January."

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CRS products

The Congressional Research Service produces briefs, reports, short issue papers and longer position papers. The service's reports provide research and policy analyses including scientific, economic and legislative analyses, background analyses, arguments and legislative histories.

CRS has a reputation for ensuring that its reports present all sides of an issue in an easy-to-understand format, making these reports an invaluable asset to public debate.

Source: Project on Government Oversight

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