Window into Public Policy (Commentary)

It’s time to make Congressional Research Service reports easily accessible to everyone.

by / August 28, 2015

When Congress created the Congressional Research Service (CRS) in 1914, it envisioned a government entity that would gather and analyze data to inform the legislative process. In the decades since, the CRS has continued to produce hundreds of valuable, comprehensive, nonpartisan reports on legislative issues each year for members of Congress and their staffs.

But CRS reports aren’t just an essential tool for policymaking. They’re also a valuable instrument for informing the public about issues that affect our country each and every day. CRS reports are unclassified and cover topics ranging from incarceration rates in the U.S., to economic impacts of individual budget and appropriations bills, to international responses to natural disasters, and everything in between.

After 100 years, it’s time to make this broad collection of information and analysis available and accessible to the public. Taxpayers spend more than $100 million each year to fund the CRS, and its unclassified reports belong in the public domain.

When we talk about opening government data, there are often many complicated questions to consider. How and where will we make it available? Is there sensitive information within the data that needs to be scrubbed? What format should we release it in? CRS reports are one source of government data that would require little effort to release but would have the immediate benefit of making the information they contain available to a wide audience.

In a June editorial, The New York Times echoed the call of groups like the Sunlight Foundation that have been advocating for years for the reports to be made public.

“As the Library of Congress, which will soon get a new leader, takes long-overdue steps to modernize digital access, lawmakers and library officials must find a way to make the service’s valuable work readily available,” The Times wrote. “These expert reports give taxpayers a richer understanding of the issues and choices their representatives deal with.”

Legislation recently introduced in the House of Representatives would direct the Clerk of the House and the CRS to host the reports in a centralized electronic database that makes the information searchable and available for bulk download. The CRS could easily do this by hosting the reports on Congress.gov, which already serves as a central portal for legislative branch information.

In fact, the agency does already make reports available to select audiences who know where to find them and who to ask. Some private companies with access to the reports have even started charging subscription fees for them. It makes little sense to withhold the reports from the general public, but to allow private companies to charge for access to research paid for by taxpayers.

But instead of being proactive and making the information readily available to anyone who wants it, the CRS has stalled efforts over the past 15 years to make its reports public by claiming that increased access to the information would impede its relationship with Congress and direct public comments and ire its way.

Over the last 100 years, CRS reports have become essential to the policymaking process: Members of Congress and their staffs rely on them for everything from basic research on a new topic, to writing legislation, to making decisions on how they will vote and more. The public deserves access to this window into the governing process in order to better understand how elected officials establish positions on, and make decisions about, vital policy matters.