Lawmakers who long protected their right to control reports from the Congressional Research Service now face a new era of full disclosure.
Buried in the 2,232-page fiscal 2018 omnibus spending bill Congress approved and President Trump signed is a much-debated provision to require the Library of Congress, beginning 90 days after the bill’s enactment, to post all the lawmaker-requested reports on a central website.
“The most effective government is one that is open and accessible to those it serves,” said Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., a key player in the bipartisan legislation, with Rep. Leonard Lance, R-N.J., and Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and John McCain, R-Ariz. “I am pleased that informative CRS reports on such a wide range of issues will now be available for public consumption. We must continue to use 21st-century resources and modern technology to implement common-sense measures that help inform the American people.”
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CRS was set up as an extension of congressional staffs, and its 500 employees who work for the Library of Congress produce even-handed, though often customized, reports on a panoply of policy topics. For decades lawmakers enjoyed the prerogative of releasing them selectively, or not at all. But the advent of inexpensive internet posting rather than printing changed the calculus, and transparency groups from the American Library Association to the Project on Government Oversight began pushing for access.
It was an open secret that many of the reports were available for those willing to pay fees or who had connections. And third parties—notably Steven Aftergood, the secrecy blogger at the Federation of American Scientists—regularly scrounged around for reports and released them.
The resistance by some lawmakers stemmed from a fear that CRS authors would temper their insights if they knew they were writing for the general public.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., ranking member of the House Appropriations Legislative Branch subcommittee, warned that forcing public release would slow the work of CRS analysts. “It’s easy to say transparency, but Congress relies on CRS as an extension of staff, for quick and dirty analysis that is sometimes not perfect,” she said in 2016 through an aide. “We need to be careful about a culture change at CRS if it became a public-facing organization, like the Government Accountability Office.”
The new policy will result in release of some 3,000 non-classified reports a year, according to Daniel Schuman, a former CRS attorney now policy director of the advocacy group Demand Progress Action, who said it capped a 20-year battle.
“Congressional Research Service reports are the gold standard when it comes to even-handed, nonpartisan analysis of the important issues before Congress,” he said in a statement. “For too long, they've only been primarily available to the well-connected and the well-heeled. At long last, Congress will make the non-confidential reports available to every American for free.”
CRS, meanwhile, in its 2017 annual report, as usual declared its commitment to the objectivity of its 1,100 new reports and 2,100 updates it produces yearly. But as Aftergood recently reported in his blog, a group of current and former CRS analysts this January wrote to CRS Director Mary Mazanec and Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden expressing concern that in the context of the country’s current political polarization, the reports have become too risk-averse in not reaching conclusions.
“CRS risks falling short of its mission if it holds back the independent analysis that Congress has directed us to provide,” they wrote. “In some such topic areas, CRS operates as a neutral compiler of facts and opinions, with little of the expert analysis, appraisal, and evaluation of their credibility that Congress requires. CRS also seems to have avoided a few topics or facets of topics almost entirely,” they noted.
The group of analysts continued: “Yet these risk-avoidant strategies, while certainly understandable, could in fact increase other risks such as under-utilizing CRS’s valuable personnel; contributing to polarization; and, ironically, inviting a perception of partisan bias. Perhaps worse, given the mission of CRS, is the risk of a slow slide into irrelevance.”