Lawmakers revive fight to get research reports online

Much-coveted Congressional Research Service reports are no longer available on select House members' Web sites because a test program to provide the reports expired in September, but lawmakers who favor public access to the reports are pushing to change the rules.

On Friday, Reps. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., and Jay Inslee, D-Wash., introduced a bill that would codify public access to CRS reports by placing them on the Internet in a public database, a longtime cause of public-interest groups and some members of Congress.

Under the House Administration Committee test program, CRS reports previously were available online through the sites of lawmakers like Shays, but that program expired in September. The new legislation, also co-sponsored by Reps. David Price, D-N.C., and Mark Green, R-Wis., would mandate public access to the reports.

"CRS products are created with taxpayers' dollars, and the taxpayers should have access to the information," Shays said in a statement. "There is no logical reason why this information should be held under lock and key."

The bill, H.R. 3630, would require CRS to make all of its research, unless it is confidential or created specifically for an individual lawmaker or congressional office or committee, available to the public within 30 to 40 days after Congress gets it. Members of Congress and congressional committees would provide access to the database via their Web sites.

In February, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., introduced a related Senate measure, S. Res. 54, that would require the Senate sergeant-at-arms to work with CRS to make the reports available through a central electronic system. The co-sponsors of that resolution are: Tom Harkin, D-Iowa; Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.; and Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn.

"The American public paid over $81 million to fund CRS' operations in fiscal year 2002 alone," McCain said at the time. "The informational reports covered by this resolution are not confidential or classified, and the public deserves to have access to them."

Public-interest organizations have been calling for Internet access to the full CRS database for several years. After the pilot program expired in September, concern was raised that access would be limited or curtailed entirely, and a coalition of groups began a letter-writing campaign to Shays and others.

"Under the pilot program, hundreds of reports were available online," said Steven Aftergood, a policy analyst with the Federation of American Scientists. "In September, that policy ended and was replaced by procedure where [lawmakers] could make individual reports available on their Web sites. That prompted a broad-based letter of concern from public-interest groups saying Congress was heading in the wrong direction."

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