Bill to require posting CRS reports online

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is expected this month to introduce a bill that would require Congress to post on the World Wide Web hundreds of reports that its members use for studying a range of issues including abortion foreign policy public contracting and telecommunications.

But leaders of the congressional arm that produces the reports are not keen on the idea.

The reports created by hundreds of staff members at the Congressional Research Service (CRS) are not widely disseminated but users of the reports say the public can get copies of the reports if they know what they are looking for if they contact their representative or senator and if they do not mind waiting a few weeks to get the reports.

But McCain and others want faster access. "Taxpayers have footed the bill for these high-quality detailed public-policy and research reports for years and deserve access to their contents " Mc Cain said in a prepared statement last month. "In making this information readily available constituents will have access to documents widely used for congressional decision-making."

Advocates of making public documents easier to obtain are not certain about the chance for McCain's bill to become law. But Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) a founding member of the Congressional Internet Caucus and a supporter of using the Internet to disseminate government forms was cautiously supportive.

"While it's premature to comment on legislation that has yet to be introduced in general the Internet has proven to be a valuable tool for opening up the legislative process to constituents and Congress should continually look for new ways to make itself accessible in cyberspace " Eshoo said. "If done in a way that will not inhibit CRS reporting posting various CRS reports online could be a significant step forward."

But CRS is reluctant to post its reports on the Web. In a memorandum dated Dec. 4 1997 CRS offic ials wrote that "dissemination of CRS products on the Internet would not be cloaked with constitutional immunity."

In their speeches and debates on Capitol Hill members of Congress are immune from claims of libel and slander. The same immunity may not extend to electronically distributed CRS reports however. "Those engaged in public distribution of CRS products as well as CRS analysts who prepare the products may be vulnerable to a variety of judicial and administrative proceedings " CRS officials wrote in their memo.

Gary Ruskin director of the Ralph Nader-affiliated Congressional Accountability Project and an advocate of making more federal information available to the public said CRS' concern can be easily allayed if Congress or a congressional agency such as the Government Printing Office disseminates the CRS products online.

In its memo CRS also claims that public dissemination of CRS products might jeopardize the confidentiality of CRS files and that the service may be left open to clai ms of copyright infringement if CRS materials are made available online because the CRS sometimes includes copyrighted materials in its reports.

"In [a copyright] infringement action a court might regard the publication of copyrighted material in a congressional document for legitimate legislative purposes as a 'fair use.' If however the use is outside of such legislative purposes it is possible that a traditional fair-use analysis might result in liability for copyright infringement " CRS officials wrote.

The CRS official said to be responsible for the memo could not be reached for comment. Capitol Hill leaders said to be investigating the idea of wider dissemination of CRS products also could not be reached.

A number of CRS reports already are available online through nonprofit organizations such as the Federation of American Scientists. And at least one business the family-run firm of Penny Hill Press in Bethesda Md. publishes abstracts of CRS reports online and mails full copies of the reports to its customers.

Harold Tennant the Penny Hill editor who runs the business with his wife would not reveal how he gets the CRS reports but said it is not that difficult. "That's a trade secret " Tennant said. "It's quite time-consuming."

Although Tennant makes most of his living off CRS reports he is in favor of posting the reports on the Web. "That's the way it ought to be " he said. "Taxpayers pay for them. I think the public ought to be able to get access to any unclassified information that there is."

Ruskin echoed Tennant's thoughts. "I paid for these reports and so did you and I want to read them " he said. "What we're just trying to do is to get the core documents of our democracy up on the Internet so people can read them."

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