Buried deep inside the recently-signed omnibus spending law on page 1,082 is a small, unassuming pro-transparency measure that gives every American insight into the important issues before Congress. The measure requires the Library of Congress to publish reports from the Congressional Research Service, or CRS, on its website. This is very good news for “we the people.”
For a long time, CRS reports have been notoriously hard to get ahold of if you are not a Washington insider, even though they don’t contain any confidential or sensitive information. Recently, however, a number of lawmakers on Capitol Hill banded together to make these reports readily available to the general public. Leading the charge was Republican U.S. Rep. Kevin Yoder of Kansas, chairman of the subcommittee that oversees issues such as legislative transparency.
Aptly titled “Congress’ think tank,” the CRS produces expert non-partisan reports for congressional staff, committees and legislators. CRS issues nearly 1,200 new reports and updates approximately 2,400 existing reports each year. The subjects run the gamut: how much the government spends on programs, what the National Security Agency does, why the Senate has a filibuster, the role of trade agreements on the filibuster. The report authors are civil servants with deep expertise –– not politicos –– which is why CRS reports are considered the gold standard for objectivity.
In 1954 a particularly frugal-minded member of Congress began to worry that it would be too costly for the Library of Congress to mail copies of reports to citizens who requested them. A ban was established and persisted for decades, prohibiting you (the taxpayer) from reading these reports.
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In our internet-driven age, the idea of mailing costs as a limiting factor is ridiculous. Yet our national legislature insisted long into the digital age that CRS reports could only be obtained by requesting one from a member of Congress: “Please, sir, may I?”
At the same time, those of us who fund CRS at over $100 million a year did not have easy access. Beltway insiders had them. Lobbyists and the like got them through friends on Capitol Hill. Private publishing companies used inside connections to get copies and sold them for exorbitant prices.
But thanks to the efforts of Yoder and his congressional colleagues, these ridiculous restrictions are no more.
CRS reports are often cited by members of Congress in the course of conducting oversight or crafting legislation. One study found that, over a decade-long period, CRS reports were cited in 190 federal court opinions, including 64 at the appellate level. In the same time period, these reports were cited 67 times in The Washington Post and 45 times The New York Times.
What took so long to make these documents publicly available? CRS management got it into their heads that their work for Congress was private in an attorney-client sort of way. While CRS generates some products that might approach this kind of confidentiality, CRS reports do not even remotely qualify. It was a self-serving mindset that enabled the agency’s leadership to dodge the chorus of demands from librarians, academics, transparency advocates and others to give the public equal access to the reports.
Ending this archaic and unfair policy took years of effort. It required a crazy quilt coalition of folks on the right, left and center to demand congressional action. And it took Yoder, as chairman of the committee that sets the CRS budget, to change the law. To his credit, and unlike so many of his predecessors, he worked across the aisle with Democrats and the Senate to champion public access to CRS reports. This is a win for you, the taxpayer and everyone who believes that our country is built on an informed citizenry.
Sasha Moss is federal affairs manager and policy counsel for the R Street Institute, center-right think tank. She co-authored this with Daniel Schuman, director of policy for the progressive Demand Progress.