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Open Access for CRS reports bubbling to the fore

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.

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