Politics

Public-Facing Congressional Research Reports Site Launches to Criticism

crsreports.congress.gov went live on time, but with a number of shortcomings

A new Congressional Research Service website with public reports is now live. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Congress’ in-house research division has moved to make more of its reports public, as required by law, but the new website is already drawing criticism.

Under the fiscal 2018 omnibus spending bill, the Congressional Research Service had to publish all nonconfidential reports on a public website operated by the Library of Congress. The website went live Tuesday, meeting the deadline set by appropriators.

CRS, which serves as an in-house think tank, prepares analysis and research for members of Congress on recurring areas of interest and by request. Reports are currently made available when they are sent to Congress.

Previously, some reports were widely available to the public online, while others were kept within congressional networks. The barriers led CRS reports to become big business for lobbying and advocacy groups and private legislative tracking companies, such as Roll Call’s sibling site CQ, which can sell access to CRS information to their clients.

Government transparency advocates say the content of the new website does not meet the requirements set out in law. Of the 627 reports available on the site, there are no reports from before January 2018. That is not a comprehensive collection of so-called active reports, defined as “current and relative to the legislative agenda.”

The most recent report on a given topic is what is considered current. For example, the most recent report on a 2016 bill is current because it has not been superseded by an updated version of the report.

“Just because a report is not dated 2018 does not mean it’s not a current report,” said Daniel Schuman, policy director at Demand Progress Action and a former CRS lawyer.

The new site has just a slice of what CRS produces. It includes a selection of “R-series” reports, which are the well-known, long-form, in-depth research documents from CRS. Not included are executive-level briefing documents called In Focus and shorter-form Insights.

The website’s initial release contains only a certain subset of CRS content, but more will be added, the Library of Congress said Tuesday.

“Moving forward, all new or updated reports will be added to the website as they are made available to Congress. The Library is also working to make available the back catalog of previously published reports as expeditiously as possible,” said Library of Congress spokesperson Gayle Osterberg in a blog post.

Joshua Tauberer, who founded govTrack.us, said the site is a good starting point and that he recognizes it is a huge step for CRS to move from an agency focused on serving Congress into the public eye. 

“I’m optimistic that they are going to continue to add reports,” he said, but noted that he’d be “interested to know how they chose which reports to publish.”

Both Schuman and Tauberer said publishing the CRS reports only in PDF format, as the site currently does, is not ideal. On the CRS site that is internal to Congress, reports are available in the more versatile HTML format in addition to PDFs. Since they already exist, Schuman and Tauberer said they’d like to see the HTML option included on the public-facing site. 

“If it’s good enough for Congress, it should be good enough for the rest of us,” said Tauberer. 

Schuman, along with Tauberer and Kevin Kosar, vice president of policy at the R Street Institute and a former CRS researcher, run everycrsreport.com, a website that aims to publish all current CRS reports online.

Schuman said that he’d be happy if the CRS site put them out of business. They created the depository in an effort to “show the way forward” for the government to create a similar site. Demand Progress and the Congressional Data Coalition won’t be shuttering their own site just yet.

“It is significantly limited and does not do all the things that the law requires ... they are required by law and they didn't meet the deadline,” said Schuman of the new CRS site.

Stephanie Akin contributed to this report.

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