CRS should stop fighting access to its own reports

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The Congressional Research Service plays an essential role in policymaking and oversight. It makes Congress smarter about issues and teaches new legislators how to legislate. I would not have spent 11 years working at CRS if I did not think very highly of the institution.

But there is one topic on which the widely esteemed and nonpartisan agency has been embarrassingly biased: the proposals to make its reports more equitably available to the public.

As a practical matter, CRS reports are available – 27,000 copies can be found on government and private-sector websites. EveryCRSReport.com, for example, has more than 8,000 reports. But official congressional policy does not provide for consistent public release of the reports, which explain the workings of Congress, agencies and myriad public policies.

Legislation has been introduced in this Congress and last Congress to fix this situation, and a number of times previously. Reps. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., and Leonard Lance, R-N.J., would have the Government Publishing Office post the reports on GovInfo.gov. This solution would give citizens a central repository to go to read authenticated copies of the reports, and would relieve CRS and congressional staff of the hassles of responding to reporters, lobbyists and constituents who ask for copies.

Inevitably, CRS proclaims aloud that it takes no position on the issue and will do whatever Congress directs. But how are we to square that claim with this 2015 memorandum that CRS’ leadership shopped to legislators? The memorandum is modestly titled: “Considerations arising from the dissemination of CRS products.” The content, however, is nothing but scare-mongering speculation about bad things that might happen if more Americans had access to CRS reports. Proponents of expanded access to CRS reports quickly demolished the claims made in CRS’ “considerations” memo.

As someone who once reviewed CRS reports before they were published, I can tell you that, had a CRS analyst written this memo, it never would have seen the light of day. And said analyst would have been rebuked by his or her supervisor. The memorandum not only misconstrues what is being proposed — nobody is advocating that CRS itself distribute the reports—but it also makes no mention of the many possible benefits of a change in policy (like increased public understanding of how Congress and government operates).

That means the memo violates CRS’ own very clear policies that its work for Congress must be accurate and unbiased, and must consider the possible benefits and costs of any proposed policy. (This internal CRS rule not only is intellectually honest, it also, ahem, protects the agency from having its work give the appearance of bias.)

One hopes that someone in Congress would call CRS leadership to the carpet on this tartuffery, and demand the agency to disavow the memorandum. In a time when federal budget cuts are being seriously discussed, the agency does itself, its employees and Congress no favors by being the lone voice advocating against common-sense reform.


Image by Micolas

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