Senator pushes alternative to full CRS report access

A bill urging the Senate to make Congressional Research Service reports publically available is stalled in the Senate Rules Committee and may be the latest of a series of such efforts to fail. Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., and eight co-sponsors last fall introduced a resolution that would allow the CRS reports available to lawmakers and their aides to be posted on a public Web site.

Senate Rules Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who has jurisdiction over the matter, is pushing a more modest plan, based on the House's system, in which members would choose whether to make reports public. Rules Committee Staff Director Howard Gantman said the proposal, which the committee can implement without a vote, would improve on the Senate approach by offering a standard system for publishing reports that would refresh reports on members' Web sites when CRS updates them.

After consultations among committee aides, CRS and others, a prototype will be rolled out "very soon," according to a CRS spokeswoman and Gantman. The plan aims to balance public needs and the views of "a significant number of members" who oppose Lieberman's bill due to their belief some CRS reports should remain confidential, Gantman said.

But this approach would disappoint government transparency advocates who say all taxpayer-funded reports should be publicly available. "They should simply move on the Lieberman proposal or something like it and get on with their job," said Stephen Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists.

Over the past decade, a series of bills requiring public access to CRS reports has made little progress, most recently a 2007 measure introduced by Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn. In the meantime, private companies have begun selling reports they obtain, while nonprofit enterprises like Aftergood's online newsletter, Secrecy News and the Center for Democracy and Technology's "Open CRS" Web site distribute some reports. As a result "CRS has completely lost control of these reports and the ability to track them," a Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee aide argued. "It harms the ability of CRS to do its job."

Feinstein's plan would help address the problem, but Lieberman will continue urging that reports be made public, the aide said. Gantman indicated Feinstein has no plans to move Lieberman's resolution, but Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs staffers said they are in the "early stage" of discussions with the Rules Committee.

"That's essentially your opening legislative gambit," a committee spokeswoman of Lieberman's bill. The resolution is backed by Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, John Cornyn, R-Texas, Richard Lugar, R-Ind., Russell Feingold, D-Wis., Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, Patrick Leahy D-Vt., Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and John McCain, R-Ariz.

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