On June 29, 2017, the House Appropriations Committee scored a major victory in the decades-long fight to make Congressional Research Service (CRS) reports publicly available. The Committee passed the Fiscal Year 2018 Legislative Branch Appropriations Bill, which would direct CRS “to make available to the public, all non-confidential reports.”
CRS is a research division within the Library of Congress with an annual budget of approximately $100 million, devoted to providing objective and nonpartisan policy analysis to Congress. In addition to providing direct services to Congressional staff through in-person briefings and consultations by email and telephone, CRS produces thousands of non-confidential reports each year that “define and explain technical terms and concepts, frame the issues in understandable and timely contexts, and provide appropriate, accurate, and valid quantitative data.” Unfortunately, CRS does not make these reports, which are paid for by taxpayers, available to the public.
Similar organizations, such as the Government Accountability Office and the Congressional Budget Office, already make their research freely available to the public, and these documents are widely used by citizens, businesses, the media, advocacy groups, and even non-legislative government staff. Moreover, multiple civic technologists have created public online archives of CRS reports that they have obtained. The most recent initiative, EveryCRSReport.com, which activists assembled with the support of both Republican and Democratic members of Congress, makes a significant number of these reports available to the public. However, despite the fact that there are no reasonable justifications for keeping CRS reports private, average still cannot access these reports through an official government website. Last week, the House Appropriations Committee officially dismissed any such opposition to the publication of these reports, stating it has “debated this issue for several years, and after considering debate and testimony from entities inside the legislative branch and beyond the Committee believes the publishing of CRS reports will not impede CRS’s core mission in any impactful way and is in keeping with the Committee’s priority of full transparency to the American people.”
Fortunately, some members of Congress have been fighting to make this taxpayer-funded resource publicly available. For example, the bipartisan 2016 Equal Access to Congressional Research Service Reports Act would have directed the Government Publishing Office to create a public website to host all CRS reports that would be updated automatically with new reports and allow users to easily search and download reports.
The FY 2018 Legislative Branch Appropriations Bill still needs to pass Congress with a companion Senate bill, but its passage through committee is a good reason to be cautiously optimistic that CRS reports could soon be publicly available. However if the appropriations bill fails, Congress should recognize the value in publishing CRS reports and quickly reintroduce legislation like the Equal Access to Congressional Research Service Reports Act to ensure that there will finally be an official source for this valuable information.
Joshua New is a policy analyst at the Center for Data Innovation.