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Free Government Information (FGI) is a place for initiating dialogue and building consensus among the various players (libraries, government agencies, non-profit organizations, researchers, journalists, etc.) who have a stake in the preservation of and perpetual free access to government information. FGI promotes free government information through collaboration, education, advocacy and research.

It’s Time to Publish CRS Reports

We have long advocated for public access to reports from the Congressional Research Service (CRS), Congress’ think tank. But CRS reports are little known and difficult to find because they are not distributed to FDLP libraries or made public — I harvest them up from sites around the ‘net that post them when they can, but it’s pretty random.

But now, thanks to the tireless efforts of Daniel Schuman, our friend and colleague and others at the Congressional Data Coalition, public access to CRS reports seems to be gathering steam. The NY Times published an editorial yesterday entitled “Congressional Research Belongs to the Public”. There are 2 legislative efforts underway in the House and Senate to make these valuable but difficult-to-find-or-even-know-about reports publicly available. Librarians have been fighting for this forever. Now it finally looks like it might just happen!

Over the years our coalition has submitted testimony in favor of public access to these reports, most recently in March. In summary, the reports explain current legislative issues in language that everyone can understand, are written by a federal agencies that receives more than $100 million annually, and there is strong public demand for access. A detailed description of the issues at play is available here.

This congress, two legislative efforts are underway to make CRS reports public. First, the bipartisan H. Res. 34, introduced by Reps. Leonard Lance (R-NY) and Mike Quigley (D-IL), would make all reports widely distributed in Congress available to the public, except confidential memoranda and advice provided by CRS at the request of a member. Second, Rep. Quigley offered an amendment to an appropriations bill that would have required CRS to make available an index of all of its reports. Similar legislation has been introduced in the Senate in prior years.

In act of cognitive dissonance, House Renews Ban on public access to CRS Reports

In a remarkable example of ironic short-sightedness, the House Appropriations Committee again banned public access and dissemination of publications from the Congressional Research Service (CRS) according to Secrecy News’ Steven Aftergood, “House Renews Ban on CRS Publication of Its Reports.”

I find this particularly frustrating in light of the House recently holding its fourth annual Legislative Data and Transparency Conference (LDTC). Danial Schuman Reported significant successes from the LDTC including modernization efforts around House committee hearing reports and the new “legislative lookup and link” tool as well as Government Publishing Office (GPO) about to release in bulk bill status and summary information for Senate legislation and Library of Congress moving to update Congress.gov on a more frequent basis.

With all this great work on Congressional transparency, how can Congress continue to ban the distribution and access to CRS reports? It reminds me of something Adam Gopnik recently wrote in a New Yorker article The Plot Against Trains, saying sadly that ideology “give[s] you reasons not to pursue your own apparent rational interest.” He was talking about trains, but I would add schools, libraries, post offices, and yes government information to that list.

The Congressional Research Service (CRS) will continue to be barred from releasing its reports to the public, the House Appropriations Committee said yesterday in its report on legislative branch appropriations for the coming year.

“The bill contains language which provides that no funds in the Congressional Research Service can be used to publish or prepare material to be issued by the Library of Congress unless approved by the appropriate committees,” the House report said….

…In a move that is perhaps even more worrisome for CRS, “The Committee directs the Library of Congress to commission an independent survey of all Members and committees of the House of Representatives to ascertain their fundamental and optimal requirements for services and support from the Library of Congress and especially the Congressional Research Service.”

The problem here is that the CRS services that congressional offices are likely to find most “useful” are not necessarily those that are most “valuable.”

Latest FOIA News

via LIS-GISIG/gov-info.tumblr.com


CBO Gov Doc: H.R. 653, FOIA Act

  • H.R. 653 would amend the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). FOIA generally allows any person to obtain records from federal agencies. Specifically, the legislation would: establish a single website for making FOIA requests; direct agencies to make records available in an electronic format; require courts to pay some attorney fees and other litigation costs related to FOIA disputes; reduce the number of exemptions agencies can use to withhold information from the public; clarify procedures for handling frequently requested documents and charging fees; establish the Chief FOIA Officers Council; and require agencies to prepare additional reports for the Congress…. CBO estimates that implementing H.R. 653 would cost $22 million over the 2016-2020 period, assuming appropriation of the necessary amounts…”

Agency Reg Updates: CIA & DOJ

National Archives

House of Representatives [fas.org overview]

  • House Defense Bill Seeks Expedited Declassification of POW Records
  • House Armed Services Committee instructed the National Nuclear Security Administration to report on “the measures taken to improve the effectiveness of the classification process and related oversight.”

Department of Homeland Security

*CRS reports via fas.org; fas.org overviews by Steven Aftergood– (not gov docs); ** via Alan Zoellner/swemgovdocs; ***h/t beSpacific.com

How Congress’s dysfunction has degraded the CRS

Here is a fascinating story about “How Congress’s dysfunction has degraded its own in-house think tank,” told by Kevin Kosar, an analyst who quit his job last October as a researcher at the Congressional Research Service.

Self-inflating, score-settling tell-alls are a dime a dozen in this town. This article is not one of them. I wrote this piece because I want more people in Congress and outside to appreciate how important the CRS is to good governance. My experience at the CRS also provides a window on the dysfunction currently afflicting Congress.

Kosar provides a little history of CRS (100 years old this year!) and some insights into its current state (staff cuts, and increasing demands to provide simple reference service for Congress instead of in depth analysis of issues). He begins with this story:

[I got] a call was from a smart congressional staffer with a law degree. Confessing some embarrassment, he asked if, as the CRS’s resident expert on the U.S. Postal Service, I could help him and his congressman boss respond to a constituent. The constituent wanted to know why the USPS was “stockpiling ammunition.” The staffer forwarded the constituent’s email, which had links to various blogs warning that the USPS was arming itself to the teeth, perhaps preparing for an assault on America.

Hat tip to Daniel Schuman, Policy Director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW).

The “Evolving” Congress

Here is a new CRS report on “The Evolving Congress.” It is a compendium of 22 reports that examine how and why Congress evolved over the previous decades to where it is today.

  • Congressional Research Service. 2014. The Evolving Congress. Senate. Committee on Rules and Administration. Senate Committee Print 113–30 (“89–394”) (Y 4.R 86/2) Washington: Government Printing Office. (December 1, 2014).

Well documented with lots of citations.

Table of Contents

  • The Evolving Congress: Overview and Analysis of the Modern Era
  • Being a Member of Congress: Some Notable Changes During the Last Half Century
  • Tweet Your Congressman: The Rise of Electronic Communications in Congress
  • Collaborative Relationships and Lawmaking in the U.S. Senate: A Perspective Drawn from Firsthand Accounts
  • The 113th Congress and the U.S. Population: Discussion and Analysis of Selected Characteristics
  • Congressional Staffing: The Continuity of Change and Reform
  • The Unchanging Nature of Congressional Elections
  • Understanding Congressional Approval: Public Opinion from 1974 to 2014
  • Comparing Modern Congresses: Can Productivity Be Measured?
  • Recent Innovations in Special Rules in the House of Representatives
  • Changes in the Purposes and Frequency of Authorizations of Appropriations
  • Congress Evolving in the Face of Complexity: Legislative Efforts to Embed Transparency, Participation, and Representation in Agency Operations
  • Committee Assignments and Party Leadership: An Analysis of Developments in the Modern Congress
  • Congress and Financial Crises
  • Shocks to the System: Congress and the Establishment of the Department of Homeland Security
  • Like Clockwork: Senate Consideration of the National Defense Authorization Act
  • The SBA and Small Business Policymaking in Congress
  • Use of the Appropriations Process to Influence Census Bureau Policy: The Case of Adjustment
  • The Evolution of U.S. Disaster Relief Policy
  • Congress’ Role in the Evolution of Federal Block Grants as a Policy Instrument: From Community Development to Homeland Security
  • The Tax Extenders: How Congressional Rules and Outside Interests Shape Policy
  • The Dynamics of Congressional Policymaking: Tax Reform