CRS or CIA?

Posted February 11, 2003 at 5:07pm

The public pays $81 million a year for a superb Library of Congress think tank known as the Congressional Research Service, which produces incisive studies on crucial issues — from tax policy to port security — and up-to-date information on legislation. Yet CRS’ work products are next to unavailable to the public, only to Members, Congressional staff and those willing to pay high fees. In fact, CRS’ Web site is guarded with an elaborate firewall to keep the public out. This should stop.

Calls have been made before for CRS data to become publicly available. Over the years, various Members — Sens. John Warner (R-Va.) and Thomas Daschle (D-S.D.) and Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) among them — have put CRS documents on their Web sites. And Shays, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) have introduced legislation to make CRS material publicly available on the Internet. It has all come to naught.

McCain and Leahy announced Tuesday that they will reintroduce their legislation soon, and a new report by the Project on Government Oversight makes a compelling case for openness. Calling CRS “Washington’s best-kept secret,” the report observes that “neither CRS’ products nor its Web sites are readily available to the public. … A citizen must request them from his or her Member, undertake an exhaustive and time-consuming search for them, or pay for them.”

The POGO report continues, “The official CRS Web sites [crs.gov and the Legislative Information System at congress.gov] are not available to the public at all. To prevent public access to its Web sites, CRS has erected an elaborate firewall. As a Congressional entity, CRS is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act. CRS does not answer direct public inquiries.”

It sounds like the CIA, not an arm of the LOC or of Congress, the branch of government normally most accessible to the public. The Library and CRS defend secrecy on the grounds that if its products were published, CRS might lose protection under the Constitution’s Speech or Debate Clause, might subject CRS researchers to peer review and pressure, and might interfere with Member-constituent relations. The POGO report refutes all the arguments: The General Accounting Office and Congressional Budget Office publish and do not lose their protection, peer review is the essence of academic inquiry, and, by informing constituents, publication would enrich their contacts with Members.

Moreover, it isn’t really true that no one outside Congress gets CRS’ products. Former Members of Congress, many of whom become lobbyists, can request CRS publications and research assistance. And some expensive paid services provide them. But since every taxpayer pays for CRS, every citizen should have access.