McCain pushes to put CRS online

CRS reports posted by Rep. Christopher Shays

The Congressional Research Service may be the most influential think tankin the nation. Each year, the CRS conducts studies on hundreds of subjectsas diverse as the future of cloning, alternative methods of airport financingand the economics of baseball. Its findings are sent to a very select audience— the 535 members of Congress.

Sen. John McCain wants to make the CRS' work available to everyone byposting it on the Internet.

"We should strive to promote a better-informed and educated public,"McCain (R-Ariz.) said Wednesday as he introduced legislation to put CRSreports online.

Taxpayers will spend $73 million this year so that the 750-member thinktank can study and advise Congress on matters such as tax policy, healthcare and technology, he said. "The public should have access to this CRSinformation."

CRS reports and issue briefs are widely praised as "high-quality, concise,factual and unbiased — a rarity in Washington," McCain said.

This isn't the first time the senator has tried to put CRS reports online.Efforts in 1998 and 1999 failed, in part over concern that publishing thereports online might make the CRS vulnerable to legal liability. Researcherswho recommended canceling a military program, for example, might be suedby a weapons manufacturer.

McCain said he has redesigned his legislation to avoid the legal problemby having the Senate sergeant-at-arms post the reports, which will be availablevia the Web sites of senators and Senate committee. The arrangement willensure that the CRS is protected by the immunity to legal action that membersof Congress enjoy, a McCain aide explained.

Several hundred CRS reports have been made available online by severalHouse members using a similar arrangement. CRS reports also are availableon paper through a company that charges $49 per copy. "It's not fair forthe American people to have to pay a third party" for copies of reportsthey have already paid for through taxes, McCain said.

Along with CRS reports, McCain's bill would require the Senate Officeof Public Records to post lobbyist disclosure forms and Senate gift disclosureforms on the Internet. The forms are public documents, but to see them requiresa trip to a Senate office building in Washington, D.C.

McCain argues that making such information more widely available "willhelp fight a growing public cynicism about our government."

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