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I can’t believe it’s finally happened, but today the House Appropriations Committee voted to “allow public access to all non-confidential CRS reports” as part of the FY 2018 Legislative Branch Appropriations bill. We’re one step closer to having public access to CRS reports! A bipartisan group of 40 nonprofit organizations (including FGI!) and 25 former CRS employees have been banging on Congress to do this, and the House today finally listened!
The issue of public access to Congressional Research Service (CRS) reports has been something for which librarians have advocated for at least 20 years. It’s been an uphill battle because some in Congress and the Library of Congress have long viewed CRS reports — which provide non-partisan analysis of important policy issues before Congress — as “privileged communication” between Congress and the CRS. And because of this narrow thinking about *public domain* government information, Libraries and the public have been forced to pay for these reports from private publishers, subscribe to expensive databases for access or find them serendipitously on the web.
Here is the appropriations report language:
“Public Access to CRS Reports: The Committee directs the Library of Congress’s Congressional Research Service (CRS) to make available to the public, all non-confidential reports. The Committee has debated this issue for several years, and after considering debate and testimony from entities inside the legislative branch and beyond the Committee believes the publishing of CRS reports will not impede CRS’s core mission in any impactful way and is in keeping with the Committee’s priority of full transparency to the American people. Within 90 days of enactment of this act CRS is directed to submit a plan to its oversight committees detailing its recommendations for implementing this effort as well as any associated cost estimates. Where practicable, CRS is encouraged to consult with the Government Publishing Office (GPO) in developing their plan; the Committee believes GPO could be of assistance in this effort.”
Read DemandProgress’ press release for more background.
Gary at InfoDocket lists 20 New or Recently Updated Reports From the Congressional Research Service (CRS) selected from EveryCRSReport.com and the CRS reports at the Federation of American Scientists. These include reports covering newsworthy topics like Barriers Along the U.S. Borders: Key Authorities and Requirements and Dakota Access Pipeline: Siting Controversy and Executive Authority to Exclude Aliens: In Brief and U.S. Sanctions Regimes on Russia (Overview).
OMG I am so excited. This morning, Daniel Schuman and the fine folks at DemandProgress announced the launch of EveryCRSReport.com, a new website with 8,200 CRS reports from the Library of Congress’ Congressional Research Service (CRS), and more coming.
This is so awesome because CRS reports, written by experts in “Congress’ Think Tank,” have long been NOT available to the public unless a person contacted her member of Congress and *asked* for a report. See the problem here? Government reports — which are legally in the PUBLIC DOMAIN! — NOT available to the public, and one would need to know about the existence of a report in order to ask for the report. CRAZY!
This has been a long time in coming. Librarians and open government groups have been advocating for the public release of CRS reports for at least as long as I’ve been a librarian (15+ years) and likely longer. Change *does* come, but sometimes it happens in a geological timeframe.
For more, see Daniel’s post “Why I Came To Believe CRS Reports Should be Publicly Available (and Built a Website to Make it….” Congratulations and THANK YOU Daniel!
Here are the highlights:
On the website:
- 8,200 reports
- Search + the ability to filter reports by topic
- Automatic updates through RSS feeds
- Freshness ratings, which say how much a report changed when it was updated
- The ability to view reports on your mobile device
- Bulk download of all the reports
- All the code behind the site (build your own!)
- For each report, we:
- Redacted the author’s name, email, and phone number, except in a tiny subset of reports
- Explained the report is not copyrighted and its purpose is to inform Congress
oday my organization, in concert with others, is published 8,200 CRS reports on a new
website, EveryCRSReport.com. We are not the first organization to publish CRS reports. Many others have done so. Nor are we the first to advocate for public access. We’re part of a huge coalition including other former CRS employees. But I think we are the first to publish just about all the (non-confidential) reports currently available to members of Congress, in concert with a bipartisan pair of members who are providing the reports to us, and with a method to keep on doing so.We have tried to address CRS’s concerns. We redacted the contact information for the people who wrote the reports. We added information about why the reports are written and that they’re not subject to copyright. And we added a few nice bells and whistles to the website, such as letting you know how much a report has changed when it’s been revised.We think Congress as an institution should publish the reports. We support bicameral, bipartisan legislation to do so. And we hope that our website will help show the way forward.
As a government information librarian, I know the value of reports from the Congressional Research Service (CRS). They’re great publications for understanding public policy being discussed at the Federal level and because of that, FGI has been fighting hard to make those publications public. Steven Aftergood, from the Federation of American Scientists’ Secrecy News project (which you’re reading everyday right?!), makes a critical point about the funding for this important research unit within the Library of Congress. He’s right of course that CRS — not to mention agencies like the US Census Bureau, GPO, Library of Congress and many others! — have faced a decade-long erosion of their budgets and been squeezed mercilessly by the political forces holding sway these days in DC. As Aftergood points out, it won’t matter if CRS reports are made public if it continues to be bled of its staff and budgets to do the research that Congress and the American public needs.
Most public controversy concerning the Congressional Research Service revolves around the question of whether Congress should authorize CRS to make its reports publicly available, or whether unauthorized access to CRS reports is a satisfactory alternative.
But a more urgent question is whether CRS itself will survive as a center of intellectual and analytical vitality. Already many of its most deeply knowledgeable and experienced specialists have been lost to retirement or attrition. And recurring budget shortfalls are taking a toll, say congressional supporters.
“According to CRS, recent funding levels have led to a loss of 13 percent of its purchasing power since 2010. The $1 million increase [proposed in the House version of the FY2017 Legislative Appropriations Act] will not even cover mandatory pay for CRS’ current staff,” wrote Reps. Nita Lowey and Debbie Wasserman Schultz in dissenting views attached to the House Appropriations Committee report on the FY 2017 bill.
“CRS’s [FY2017] budget request sought to rebuild the agency. They asked for two defense policy staff, five health policy staff, three education policy staff, two budget/appropriations staff, four technology policy staff, and two data management and analysis staff. None of those staff would be funded under the current bill, depriving Congress of a non-biased analysis of these critical policy areas,” Reps. Lowey and Wasserman Schultz wrote.
This is YUGE! The “Equal Access to Congressional Research Service Reports Act of 2016” was introduced in both the House and the Senate, cosponsored by Senators McCain and Leahy and Representatives Lance and Quigley. 40 organizations — including FGI and Stanford University libraries (where I work)! — signed a letter in support of the legislation, nicknamed the OpenCRS Act. Read Senator Leahy’s press release.
Today Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Representatives Leonard Lance (R-NJ) and Mike Quigley (D-IL) introduced in the House and Senate legislation directing the online publication of Congressional Research Service reports that are available for general congressional access. A coalition of 40 civil society and grassroots organizations, libraries, trade associations, think tanks, and businesses from across the political spectrum released this statement in support of the legislation:
We, the undersigned organizations, endorse the Equal Access to Congressional Research Service Reports Act of 2016. The legislation provides the public timely, comprehensive, free access to Congressional Research Service reports.
We commend Sens. John McCain and Patrick Leahy and Reps. Leonard Lance and Mike Quigley for their tireless efforts to ensure equitable access for all Americans to these documents, which provide insight into the important issues before Congress and are paid for by taxpayers.
We urge the Senate’s Committee on Rules and Administration and the House of Representative’s Committee on House Administration to speedily approve the legislation.