Government transparency advocates were thrilled last spring when Congress ordered its in-house think tank to publicly release its reports.
Now, groups that lobbied for years to end the secrecy surrounding the Congressional Research Service say the website scheduled to launch in September would leave out crucial documents and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars more than it should.
“When they finish the process that they outline, they will not have solved the problem Congress told them to solve,” said Daniel Schuman, policy director at Demand Progress Action and a former CRS lawyer. “They are supposed to make all non-confidential CRS reports available on their website in a timely way.”
Schuman laid out his concerns Thursday in a blog post co-authored with Kevin Kosar — vice president of policy at the R Street Institute and a former CRS researcher — and govTrack.us founder Joshua Tauberer. They based their criticism on a Library of Congress implementation plan from May, which they also released on the website legbranch.com.
The library, which oversees the CRS, projected in that document that it would launch the website on Sept. 18, the day before the statutory deadline, with 500 reports that are relevant to issues currently before Congress. It would then publish batches of 400 reports every month until the spring of 2019, when all so-called active reports, defined as, “current and relative to the legislative agenda,” would be online. The project would cost an estimated $1.5 million.
Library of Congress spokeswoman Gayle Osterberg said Monday that that estimated reflected, “the full lifecycle implementation costs; planning, design, development, security review, test and implementation.”
“The implementation plan is true to both the letter and the spirit of the law,” she said. “The Library is committed to adding content as expeditiously as possible.”
The library has been working on a, “very tight timeline,” to update much of its IT systems, including the platform that would allow it to publish the CRS reports, she said.
The authors of the legbranch.com critique run everycrsreport.com, a website that aims to publish all current CRS reports online. But they maintain the public would be better served if the government published its own work, thus ensuring its timeliness and authenticity.
The LOC plan “does not comport with the law or best practices for creating websites and is unusually expensive,” they wrote. By contrast, their own collection of 14,000 reports cost about $20,000, the group says.
They also criticized the library’s plans to publish the reports only as PDF files — rather than in both HTML and PDF formats — making them harder to access on mobile devices and potentially inaccessible to people with visual impairments. The plan also apparently ignores a directive to publish a separate index of all the reports published by CRS, they said, which would make it easier for laypeople to see all available documents at once.
Some CRS reports are already widely available to the public online, while others are kept within congressional networks. CRS reports have become big business for lobbying and advocacy groups and private legislative tracking companies, such as CQ, the sister publication of Roll Call, which can sell access to CRS information to their clients.
Lawmakers directed the LOC in the fiscal 2018 omnibus bill to create a single public source for the reports, which are meant to be in-depth nonpartisan analyses of issues, procedures and policies facing Congress. The legislation specifies the reports on the new website “shall be searchable, sortable, and downloadable, including downloadable in bulk.”
The CRS director was given 90 to 180 days from enactment of the measure to provide the librarian of Congress with the information necessary to “begin the initial operation” of the new CRS reports website.
CRS prepares analyses and research for members of Congress, on recurring areas of interest as well as by request. Reports are currently made available when they are sent to Congress.