Politics

New Calls for Public Access to Secret Congressional Reports

Privacy policy at Congressional Research Service full of holes, critics say

New Jersey Rep. Leonard Lance introduced a bill with Illinois Rep. Mike Quigley that would require reports from the Congressional Research Service to be made public. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo) 

The secrecy surrounding Congress’ in-house think tank came under fire again Wednesday, with transparency advocates on and off the Hill renewing calls for free public access to its in-depth policy briefs. 

Rep. Leonard Lance, a New Jersey Republican, and Mike Quigley, an Illinois Democrat, reintroduced a bill the same day that would require all the reports produced by the Congressional Research Service to be published on a government website.

The House Appropriations Committee last year voted down an amendment that would have made it easier to access the reports after Georgia Republican Tom Graves, the former chairman of the Legislative Branch subcommittee, and Democrat Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida expressed reservations.

The new subcommittee chairman, Kevin Yoder, however, was among those who voted for the proposal last year. The Kansas Republican said Wednesday he would err on the side of transparency, although he wants to be sensitive to other members’ concerns. 

“I’m favorable towards making these reports accessible to members of the public,” he said. “I think it enhances transparency and accountability, and so we will certainly see what the committee wants to do.”

Transparency advocates — representing 25 former CRS employees and a broad range of watchdog groups, librarians and organizations opposed to government waste — testified before a House subcommittee that the policy of secrecy surrounding the reports is outdated.

Proponents of more disclosure range from the American Civil Liberties Union to Grover Norquist’s right-leaning nonprofit Americans for Tax Reform.

At issue is a century-old restriction on who gets to see the reports published by the CRS, an obscure but highly regarded division of the Library of Congress. The reports are produced for lawmakers and their staffs to brush up on major public policy issues — from so-called sanctuary cities to corporate income taxes.

“Any student, reporter, taxpayer or interested citizen should be allowed to log online and view these reports,” Lance said. “These reports are paid for by taxpayer funds. The taxpayers should be able to read them.”

The Congressional Research Service has a staff of about 500 policy analysts, lawyers and other professionals and a $100 million annual budget.

The bill calls for the reports to be published on govinfo.gov, a site managed by the Government Publishing Office. It is the fifth such proposal in the House since 2009.

Senate support

In the Senate, a bipartisan group led by John McCain, R-Ariz., and Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., aims to reintroduce a companion bill once “a flurry of intense activity on several fronts” subsides, Leahy aide David Carle said.

“It makes no sense that these government reports aren’t available to taxpayers, especially as their taxes fund the CRS,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., who was a co-sponsor of the bill last year.

Many lawmakers have so far resisted the idea, arguing that their colleagues need to be able to request research on controversial topics without fear of exposure. Opponents also worry that special-interest groups could try to influence the content of the reports if they knew what the analysts were working on, and that opening the reports to the public could create a barrage of outside requests that the office is not equipped to manage.

“We need to be really, really careful with this,” Graves said at a 2016 hearing. He said individual lawmakers should be the ones to decide whether they want to release a report they have requested. The secrecy allows legislators to back off policies they have explored without worrying that their interest could become public, he said.

Available elsewhere

Advocates for providing public access to the reports said the expectation of secrecy makes little sense because the reports are already widely available to those who know where to look.

Members of Congress and the roughly 20,000 staff members on the Hill can access and disseminate them from an internal site.

The reports are then collected by private subscription services and watchdog groups, available on various websites and routinely referenced in media reports and court documents. CQ, the sister publication to Roll Call, is one of several private companies that pays outside providers to gather CRS reports for subscribers.

Thousands of the reports were even released by the pro-transparency site WikiLeaks in 2009.

In many cases, it is difficult to know whether those documents are the most recent available, or if they are original.

“Why keep CRS reports officially unavailable to the public, yet easily findable to folks within the Beltway who are in the know?” said Kevin Kosar, a former analyst at the Congressional Research Service, who has become one of the leading advocates for opening much of its records.

Kosar, now a vice president at the R Street Institute, was among three witnesses on Wednesday who called for the reports to be made public.

‘No evidence’

Disclosure proponents make a distinction between CRS reports and memos produced at the request of members and congressional committees, which they agree should be kept confidential.

They say there is no evidence that the dissemination of the documents has led to efforts to influence CRS analysts. They also say providing all the reports online would reduce work for CRS employees, because they could simply direct anyone calling for information to the website.

CRS spokesman Brent Yacobucci said the office would not take a position on proposed or pending legislation.

“We follow the direction of Congress and the guidance in our authorizing statutes,” he said.

Advocates for opening the records say that direction of Congress is long overdue.

Demand Progress, a group that advocates open public records, started cataloguing as many CRS reports as it could find on the website everycrsreport.com last year. The site cost $4,000 to set up, according to Daniel Schuman, the group’s policy director. It now provides access to more than 8,600 reports and gets about 10,000 visits a week.

Schuman, a former CRS lawyer who also testified Wednesday, said allowing public access to the reports is especially important amid the proliferation of dubious allegations on the internet.

“We’re in an era when it’s difficult to know what is true and what’s not true,” he said.  

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