Members of Congress are selfish.
That's one reason Capitol Hill continues to resist bipartisan prodding to make Congressional Research Service reports public, speculated former Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., during an Oct. 22 panel on transparency. "Members of Congress like getting access to information that wouldn't potentially be shared with their opponents. So if they sound brilliant from some well-written report, they're not eager that some candidate can get all this information and come to debates sounding just as articulate," Shays said. "That's a big reason."
Publicly distributing in-house research reports, the non-confidential documents that inform lawmakers and staff about important policy issues, makes sense, Shays argued during his 21 years in the House. These days, Reps. Leonard Lance, R-N.J., and Mike Quigley, D-Ill., carry the cause . With Congress pondering changes under Library of Congress James H. Billington's yet-to-be-named successor, advocates are hopeful the CRS could be subject to more sunlight.
"We believe Congress should provide a central online source for timely public access to CRS reports. That would place all members of the public on an equal footing to one another with respect to access," wrote 22 former CRS employees who have collectively worked more than 500 years with the agency. In a letter sent the same day as the Congressional Transparency Caucus panel, they pointed out that other legislative support agencies, including the Congressional Budget Office and the Government Accountability Office, publish their work online.
"It's the inevitable tension between the old ways we do things and technology," said Stan Brand, a former House counsel. "The law doesn't catch up to technology."
Brand again refuted arguments about potential exposure to libel or copyright infringement lawsuits.
In addition to legal concerns, the cost of distribution has been a factor in the debate since 1952, 18 years before the CRS was established. With minor tweaks, annual legislative branch appropriations bills have restricted the Library of Congress' ability to pay for publication costs.
"But what's the cost? It's electronically available," Shays challenged. While in Congress, Shays participated in a pilot program that allowed the public to access CRS reports though his website. "They don't have to printing costs ... it's not even an argument."
The real reason Congress is hesitant to share CRS reports may be that it is politically easier for members if the $106-million agency stays under the radar. With more exposure, it becomes a target for partisan attacks.
"There are groups way far to the left or way far to the right that are going to get a hold of a copy of a report and they're going to say, 'inside the Congress is this illicit group that's advocating for global warming and read what they said in this report, and it was by so and so,'" Shays said.
In 2012, Republican attacks led CRS to withdraw a report concluding top tax rate reductions appeared to be associated with "the increasing concentration of income at the top of the income distribution.” It's author fled to an economic policy think tank.
Another analyst faced backlash from the coal industry and won praise from environmentalists over a report that pointed out weaknesses in coal ash legislation.
Shays joked he could see Fox News' Sean Hannity "having fun with this."
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