If you provide public service for legal or government information, you have probably come across "private laws" and may have wondered what they are. These are not secret laws (which are laws that the public cannot even see!). These are private laws, which means that they usually deal with immigration issues or claims against the government. You might find this CRS report of interest:
- Procedural Analysis of Private Laws Enacted: 1986-2013, by Christopher M. Davis, Congressional Research Service, RS22450 (April 9, 2013)
Hat tip to Steven Aftergood!
Daniel Schuman, Policy Counsel and Director, Advisory Committee on Transparency of the Sunlight Foundation, writes that Reps. Mike Quigley and Leonard Lance are leading the charge in the House of Representatives to make CRS Reports publicly accessible. They've introduced (or RE-introduced) H.Res.110 - Congressional Research Service Electronic Accessibility Resolution of 2013. Hopefully this will be the year that Congress decides to share.
Former Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said that "everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts." In 1914, an uncharacteristically foresighted Congress spent $25,000 to establish a fact-finding arm whose mission was to gather "data ... bearing upon legislation, and to render such data serviceable to Congress." A century later, the Congressional Research Service generates hundreds of analytical non-partisan reports on legislative issues each year.
CRS reports often inform public debate. A recent analysis, which found no correlation between economic growth and cutting tax rates for the wealthy, set off a re-appraisal of long-held orthodoxy about tax policy. A 2006 analysis questioning the legal rationale supporting the Bush administration's warrantless wiretapping policy caused many to look at the issue with fresh eyes. CRS analyses are routinely cited in news reports, by the courts, in congressional debate, and by government watchdogs.
However, unlike its sister agencies that investigate federal spending and analyze the budgetary effects of legislation, CRS does not release its reports to the public on a regular basis. This was not always so, and even now CRS routinely shares its reports with officials in the executive and judicial branches and with the press upon request. Congressional offices also act to disseminate the reports, publishing some on their websites, frequently sending others to constituents in response to requests, and giving them to reporters (often to help push a political narrative.)
But for a member of the public, it's difficult to access reports generated by the 600-person $100 million-a-year agency in any comprehensive way. Efforts by non-profit organizations to gather and re-publish the reports online have met with limited success. The private sector has stepped in, selling access to the reports at $20 a pop, but the premium accentuates the gap between the elites and everyone else.
Man, this week is Sunshine-week-alicious! The Sunlight Foundation has long advocated for -- along with FGI, library- and open govt organizations -- the free public access to Congressional Research Service (CRS) reports. CRS Reports are commonly not available to the public as CRS has this arcane and outdated rule that CRS reports are privileged communication between Congress and CRS. But CRS reports ARE available randomly online and Proquest, Penny Hill Press and other commercial publishers have long published them for a fee (I've even heard that CRS subscribes to Proquest to get access to their own reports historically!).
But this all may change. According to the Sunlight Blog, Representatives Leonard Lance (R-NJ) and Mike Quigley (D-IL) have reintroduced the bipartisan House Resolution 110 "Public Access to Congressional Research Service Reports Resolution of 2013" (text not received by GPO yet so not publicly available on Thomas). The Resolution would direct the Clerk of the House of Representatives to provide members of the public with Internet access to certain Congressional Research Service publications. Easy-peasy right?!
More than 30 organizations -- including Sunlight Foundation and FGI -- have signed on to a letter supporting the resolution. Please consider contacting your Representative and ask them to support H.Res. 110!
Steven Aftergood comments on the recent withdrawal from the CRS internal website of a Congressional Research Service report, Taxes and the Economy: An Economic Analysis of the Top Tax Rates Since 1945, by Thomas L. Hungerford, Specialist in Public Finance, Congressional Research Service, report R42729 (September 14, 2012).
- Some Comments on the “Withdrawal” of a CRS Report, by Steven Aftergood, Secrecy News (November 5th, 2012).
But "withdrawn" here means withdrawn from the internal congressional website. CRS could not withdraw the report from public circulation because it never made the report publicly available. In fact, as things stand, the "withdrawn" CRS report is now more widely accessible than the large majority of other CRS products. Not only did the New York Times post it online, it is available on the congressional website of the Senate Democratic Policy Committee, as well as through FAS and elsewhere.
But neither congressional Republicans who were angered by the report nor Democrats who were offended by its withdrawal have seen fit to provide public access online to thousands of other CRS reports, which are effectively suppressed without being withdrawn.
Today, the NY Times published an article "Nonpartisan Tax Report Withdrawn After G.O.P. Protest" which points to the increasing politicization of the Congressional Research Service (CRS), the non-partisan think tank of the US Congress.
The CRS report, by researcher Thomas Hungerford, concluded:
The results of the analysis suggest that changes over the past 65 years in the top marginal tax rate and the top capital gains tax rate do not appear correlated with economic growth. The reduction in the top tax rates appears to be uncorrelated with saving, investment, and productivity growth. The top tax rates appear to have little or no relation to the size of the economic pie.
However, the top tax rate reductions appear to be associated with the increasing concentration of income at the top of the income distribution. As measured by IRS data, the share of income accruing to the top 0.1% of U.S. families increased from 4.2% in 1945 to 12.3% by 2007 before falling to 9.2% due to the 2007-2009 recession. At the same time, the average tax rate paid by the top 0.1% fell from over 50% in 1945 to about 25% in 2009. Tax policy could have a relation to how the economic pie is sliced—lower top tax rates may be associated with greater income disparities.
Huffington Post interviewed Mr Hungerford, who stood by the report:
"Basically, the decision to take it down, I think The New York Times article basically got it right, that it was pressure from the Senate minority to take it down," Hungerford said. "CRS reports go through many layers of review before they're issued and as far as the tone and the conclusions go, people who specifically look at the writing and the tone said it was okay. So it's not going to be that and as I can tell you outright, I stand by the report and the analysis in the report."
To the NY Times' credit, they posted a copy of the report in their story. We're hosting a copy on FGI servers for your convenience.
More from the NY Times:
The Congressional Research Service has withdrawn an economic report that found no correlation between top tax rates and economic growth, a central tenet of conservative economy theory, after Senate Republicans raised concerns about the paper’s findings and wording.
The decision, made in late September against the advice of the agency’s economic team leadership, drew almost no notice at the time. Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, cited the study a week and a half after it was withdrawn in a speech on tax policy at the National Press Club.
But it could actually draw new attention to the report, which questions the premise that lowering the top marginal tax rate stimulates economic growth and job creation.
“This has hues of a banana republic,” Mr. Schumer said. “They didn’t like a report, and instead of rebutting it, they had them take it down.”
Republicans did not say whether they had asked the research service, a nonpartisan arm of the Library of Congress, to take the report out of circulation, but they were clear that they protested its tone and findings.
Don Stewart, a spokesman for the Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, said Mr. McConnell and other senators “raised concerns about the methodology and other flaws.” Mr. Stewart added that people outside of Congress had also criticized the study and that officials at the research service “decided, on their own, to pull the study pending further review.”
This is great news indeed! The Sunlight Foundation reported today that the "Public Access to Congressional Research Service Reports Resolution of 2012" (aka H. Res 727) has just been introduced by Representatives Quigley (D-IL) and Lance (R-NJ) -- many thanks to both of them.
The resolution would ensure that reports by Congress's $100 million-a-year think tank will become available to the public on a website maintained by the House Clerk. Numerous good government groups and advocates for more congressional transparency -- including FGI! -- have endorsed the measure. Please contact your Representative and ask them to vote HELL YEAH! on H. Res 727.
The reports, prepared by the Congressional Research Service, are frequently cited by the courts and the media and requested by members of the public, but CRS does not release them to the public. Instead, they come to widespread attention after they are released in dribs and drabs by Congressional offices and painstakingly collected by researchers. Some are collected and sold for $20 a copy, while others are made available by non-profit organizations for public consumption. By the time they become publicly available, the reports can become outdated, especially when an issue is moving quickly in Congress.
Reliable access to CRS Reports would ensure that everyone has timely and comprehensive access to the collective wisdom of hundreds of analysts and experts on political issues when they're at their most salient. This is already common practice in other support arms of the Congress, like the Government Accountability Office and the Congressional Budget Office.
In the past CRS reports have been more widely available, but relatively recent CRS-imposed policies are increasing limiting access even as the Internet has made the documents easier to share. In fact, the original limitation on public access was imposed in the 1950s on CRS's predecessor agency and arose from a concern about the costs of printing and mailing the reports -- not their confidentiality. In the Internet age, this limitation no longer makes sense, especially as these reports are already available on CRS's internal website in electronic form.
I've got a google search alert set up for "CRS report" OR "Congressional Research Service" and thought I'd share the CRS reports in my most recent alert. If you're not familiar with this service, it's a handy way to keep track of issues or subjects. Go to http://www.google.com/alerts to set up alerts, or do a search on google news and scroll down to the bottom of the page to create an alert for your search.
Here's the latest CRS reports in the news:
- Taiwanese air force faces plane shortage by 2020. Taipei Times. "The annual report by the Congressional Research Service, entitled Taiwan: Major US Arms Sales Since 1990 — which Defense News has called “required reading inside Taiwan defense circles and among US defense officials working with the island’s military” — provides a detailed analysis of US arms sales to Taiwan over more than two decades."
- The Domestic Terrorist Threat: Background and Issues for Congress. CRS Report R41780. Posted on the FAS Secrecy News site.
- eNewsUSA: CRS Report On GHG Emissions & Canadian Oil Sands
- China's Stranglehold on Rare Earths to Loosen as North American Production Facilities Come Online. Finance.yahoo.com. "According to a Congressional Research Service (CRS) Report in April China currently produces 97 percent of the world's rare earth oxides." I found the 2011 CRS report posted on OpenCRS but the 2012 report has not been made public yet.*
- Fox Mangles Data To Claim "The Poor" Are Getting "Richer". Media Matters. "The CRS report notes that "although the rank of the United States differs somewhat from one study to the next, as discussed below, the United States typically is found to be among the least mobile of the advanced economies." [Congressional Research Service, 3/7/12]"
*Our readers may or may not know that the Library of Congress does NOT make CRS reports public, nor are they distributed to libraries in the Federal Depository Library Program. The only way to make a CRS report public is for member of Congress to release it or for a citizen to request it from her/his representative. Many in the library and govt transparency communities have been trying for years to persuade CRS to change their policy that views CRS reports as confidential queries with members of Congress and begin to officially release them to the public. OpenCRS and other sites like Steven Aftergood's Secrecy News regularly post CRS reports, but this is done only because CRS refuses to release them to the public. Please contact your representative and ask them to push CRS to change their policy.
CRS has a new report that outlines the historical tension between secrecy and transparency in the congressional process and identifies various closed door lawmaking activities and more.
- Congressional Lawmaking: A Perspective On Secrecy and Transparency, by Walter J. Oleszek, Congressional Research Service, R42108 (November 30, 2011).
Hat tip to Sabrina I. Pacifici!
Steven Aftergood calls the current state of access to Congressional Research Service reports "Congressional Secrecy." And so it is.
- Wanted: Better Access to CRS Reports, by Steven Aftergood, Secrecy News (May 5, 2011).
[T]he New York Times cited a Congressional Research Service report that was performed "in February" concerning the impact of the debt limit.
But that report has been updated and superseded, though one might not know it due to congressional secrecy policy, which precludes direct public access to CRS publications.