Archives for October 2016

Why I Came To Believe CRS Reports Should be Publicly Available (and Built a Website to Make it Happen)

I first started working for Congress as a senate intern in September 2001. I was 23 years old and had no experience working on policy. I found myself responding to letters from constituents on issues that I’d never heard of previously. It was then that I first encountered the Congressional Research Service and its reports.

The Congressional Research Service, sometimes called Congress’ think-tank, provided introductory classes to orient interns on the service. It was fascinating to see all the different kinds of analysis performed by CRS — and there were rooms filled, just loaded with reports on every issue that you could imagine. CRS also provided classes on how Congress worked. It was a great way to learn.

I worked for Congress for the next year or so, eventually rising to become a (very) low-level staffer. Occasionally I spoke with analysts, but generally speaking the reports often were enough. CRS emphasized that its advice was non-partisan and even-handed. When I left, I did what many departing staff did, and took an armful of reports with me.

After I finished law school, a half-decade later, I came back to Congress. I joined CRS as a legislative attorney. It was my job provide legal advice to members of Congress on matters concerning telecommunications, terrorism, and the separation of church and state. As the person who was now writing the reports, I was aware in a way I never had been before about the gaps in my knowledge. I also became familiar with gaps in the way CRS reports were written, the idiosyncrasies of management, and the history and role of the agency.

What was surprising to me was the unrelenting insistence by CRS that CRS reports should never be available to the public. Of course, it was understood by everyone who wrote the reports that members of Congress would make them available to the public. But we were never to do so and even the thought of public access — that there were two sides to the issue — was heresy. I never really questioned the matter.

When I left CRS, I went to work in the nonprofit world. I had — and still have — a real interest in making government work better, and I ended up working on governance, transparency, and accountability issues. It was there that I really dug into the question of public access to CRS reports.

CRS used to be a very different agency. It used to provide unvarnished advice for members of Congress on the crucial issues of the day. But over time, and especially during the 1990s, the mode of analysis changed to a description of issues, moving away from an evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses of various courses of action. I don’t mean to overstate this, and there still are many examples of prescient analysis, but CRS changed the way it did its work, in large part because of existential concerns. CRS was concerned about irritating its congressional masters by finding fault in a pet project or cherished belief. The old-timers still had great latitude to share their advice on policy, informed by their expertise, but the agency became sclerotic.

Part of this calcification included a fear of public access to any aspect of CRS’s work. At one time, CRS published a newsletter about its latest research. Later, while its employees still testified before Congress, CRS management became nervous about that testimony and also began to discourage and then generally prohibit from sharing their work even with their academic peers. Agency staff grew more insulated and isolated, focused on managing management and staying out of trouble.

Over time, I came to realize that the policy concerning public access to CRS reports was counterproductive. Members of Congress could get the reports. Lobbyists and special interests could get the reports from Congress or from private vendors for a fee. Former congressional staff could ask their friends on the hill for a copy. But the general public, unless they knew a report existed, really did not have access.

And that’s too bad. CRS reports are written for intelligent people who are not necessarily policy experts. In a world that’s awash with 5 second YouTube ads, horse race political coverage, and the endless screaming and preening of political figures, these reports are a good way to start to understand an issue.

Assomeone who has developed expertise in several issue areas over the last decade-and-a-half, I can pick out problems with CRS reports on issues that I know about. Sometimes there are significant errors — and sometimes they go uncorrected. But overall, widespread access to CRS reports increases the reservoir of knowledge available to the American people. If the first result for any internet question is Wikipedia, shouldn’t it contain the knowledge that the American people spent $100 million annually to refine? Congressional staff often start their research with Google, for better or for worse. Shouldn’t we make the reports easy for them to find? In addition, public access to CRS reports can help make constituent communications to Congress better providing useful context for people who have questions about matters of policy.

Public access to CRS reports is also good for CRS. It builds a public base of support for a legislative branch agency that far too often has suffered from the budget axe over the last two decades. As it turns out, the second greatest threat to CRS doing its job is members of Congress. They’re the ones who have an axe to grind (or wield) when policy recommendations don’t come out the way that they want. The greatest threat, of course, can be CRS’s leadership, which can be so desperate to avoid the budget axe it will doanything to stay out of the public eye, including things that hurt the agency in the long run.

Opposition to public access to CRS report is rooted in fears of the unknown. Even though many reports are routinely released by members of Congress, published by committees, and available through third-party web sites, there still remains this unreasoning fear. It is time to conquer that fear.

Today my organization, in concert with others, is published 8,200 CRS reports on a new website, We are not the first organization to publish CRS reports. Many others have done so. Nor are we the first to advocate for public access. We’re part of a huge coalition that includes many former CRS employees. But I think we are the first to publish just about all the (non-confidential) reports currently available to members of Congress, in concert with a bipartisan pair of members who are providing the reports to us, and with a method to keep on doing so.

We have tried to address CRS’s concerns. We redacted the contact information for the people who wrote the reports. We added information about why the reports are written and that they’re not subject to copyright. And we added a few bells and whistles to the website, such as letting you know how much a report has changed when it’s been revised.

We think Congress as an institution should publish the reports. We support bicameral, bipartisan legislation to do so. And we hope that our website will help show the way forward.

Five bad arguments against public access to CRS reports

This week the progressive organization Demand Progress, along with the Congressional Data Coalition, launched This new project site makes available, with the help of friendly Congressional offices, all Congressional Research Service (CRS) reports on Congress’ own internal site. The public now has access to more than 8,200 reports in one searchable database (you can even bulk download them and get the code to start your own mirror site).

Originally established over a century ago as the Legislative Reference Service, CRS’ primary mission is to provide Congress with research and analysis on policy questions. Today, American taxpayers spend over $100 million each year supporting CRS’ activities. Part of these activities include informing the public — not just Congress — about legislative matters. For instance, the bill summaries you see on were all written by CRS. So too the Constitution Annotated, which explains how the Supreme Court interprets and applies the American Constitution. Additionally, Congressional offices disseminate thousands of copies of CRS reports to their constituents each year and often post them on their own websites. Yet, CRS and Congress have historically resisted efforts to allow public access to CRS reports.

While this may have made sense in the pre-digital era, there’s no good reason for CRS’ continued reticence around the 1,200+ “general-distribution” reports it produces each year.

Indeed, these reports are already widely available if you know where to look for them. They just aren’t in a complete and searchable public database. There are thousands of unredacted CRS reports in large repositories at the U.S. Department of State, U.S. Department of Justice, Federation of American Scientists, University of Maryland Law School, et al.. In Washington, it’s easy for the politically-connected to access the reports either through an expensive subscription service or legislative contacts (even interns have complete access). The general taxpaying public, however, is out of luck.

For the record, we don’t want to be in the business of hosting reports the government should publish on its own. Bipartisan legislation to direct CRS to publish its reports through the Government Publishing Office (GPO) has already been introduced in both houses of Congress. Yet, for these efforts to gain traction, they must overcome tough opposition from entrenched Members who prefer the status quo for altogether murky reasons.

A broad coalition of public interest groups, think tanks, Members of Congress, and former CRS staff already support ending the needless secrecy around these reports. It is our hope that this website will help raise awareness for this initiative and make it easier for Congress to embrace increased transparency.

Nonetheless, we anticipate the same tired arguments and misinformation against public access. Issues of genuine concern tend to be blown out of proportion or overlook obvious technical solutions. To save you some headache, here are the most common arguments raised against public access to CRS reports and how to respond to them:

1. Public access to CRS reports discloses confidential or classified information

CRS reports aren’t classified, although some Members are confused on that point.

CRS itself has a fairly strict internal confidentiality policy against disseminating its reports and other materials directly. However, reports are designed for general distribution and thus never contain classified information or material confidentially provided to a single member of Congress. It is the sole discretion of the individual “Members and committees” of Congress to release CRS products to the public.

It’s also important to make a distinction between CRS reports and confidential memoranda or private correspondence between CRS and Congress. While the latter should be kept confidential  (unless a member chooses to release it, as they sometimes do), the former are made for general distribution to all Members and legislative staff, and frequently released to the public.

Critics also raise concerns about publishing the contact information of CRS analysts. While the website redacts this information, tens of thousands of unredacted CRS reports have been floating in the ether for years without incident. Additionally, other government agencies (such as the Government Accountability Office) freely list author contacts when publishing research.

Nonetheless, CRS is concerned that analysts may receive questions from the public, distracting them from their primary mission of serving the needs of Congress. This is a bit of concern trolling–reports have long been publicly available, and often published by Congress. Nevertheless, this is surmountable through a simple technical solution: redact the information on the public version or link to a directory only accessible through Congress’ intranet.

2. Public access to CRS reports politicizes the agency and changes its relationship with Congress

In a 2011 letter, CRS argued that widespread dissemination of its reports would be “a fundamental alteration of the CRS mission” that could open it up to interference from “lobbyists or other outside pressure.” Of course, any lobbyist worth his salt already has the ability to obtain CRS reports (either through subscription services or legislative staff). In other words, special interest groups have long had access to this information, and already adjust their advocacy strategy based on the findings of CRS. And for a while, the House of Representatives had a web tool that made it easy for Members to directly publish CRS reports to their websites.

CRS has also argued that publication of its reports might be misconstrued by the public as taking policy positions on behalf of Congress. They argue, “the perception could arise that CRS speaks for the Congress and sets legislative policy” rather than advising it. Of course, in the hundred plus years that CRS has been around and its reports have been circulated, this has not been a problem. The type of people who know what CRS is and read its policy reports have a basic enough knowledge of the government not to make this mistake. Nonetheless, this concern could be easily addressed by publishing a short disclaimer explaining the role of CRS at the end of each report or on any public-facing website that publishes them (which is what does).

3. Public access to CRS reports burdens the agency with public engagement, undermining its core mission

CRS also raises the concern that public access to its reports will increase its volume of inquiries, and thus require spending additional manpower and resources on public relations. This, they argue, detracts from their core mission to support Congress. However, it is already Congressional policy that Members may distribute CRS reports or even publish them online. Supporting widespread public access would likely decrease the load on already overworked Congressional staff who are tasked with disseminating reports to constituents, civil society groups, and lobbyists.

In practice, public access to CRS reports ideally should be facilitated by the GPO or Congress itself — entities which have a responsibility to inform the public about legislative matters, and have existing capacity to deal with constituent inquiries.

4. Public access to CRS reports would incur liability for copyright infringement

Per 17 U.S.C. § 105, “a work prepared by an officer or employee of the United States Government as part of that person’s official duties” is not eligible for copyright protection.

However, in some circumstances CRS reports can contain material copyrighted by a third party. CRS argued in a 1999 memo that “[t]here is some risk of assertion of copyright infringement if CRS materials are made available online to Members of the general public.” This may be because CRS has restrictive licensing agreements with rights-holders, or, perhaps more likely, because they are relying upon fair use as “reproduction of a work in legislative or judicial proceedings or reports.”

This may be a legal gray area depending on the nature of CRS’ own internal practices for licensing and using copyrighted content. CRS argues:

Although CRS obtains permission to reproduce certain copyrighted works, the permissions are generally based on legislative use and the expectation that dissemination is limited to Members of Congress.

Yet, it is also longstanding policy that reports may be disseminated to constituents or to the public at the sole discretion of individual Members of Congress. Thus, it’s unlikely they would have restrictive licensing agreements. Instead, it is more likely that CRS is making a needlessly cautious argument with respect to fair use.

As previously discussed, thousands of CRS reports have already been released to the public and re-published by various groups including law schools, advocacy groups, executive agencies, and Congress itself without incurring notable infringement lawsuits or takedown requests. It’s likely that CRS is either overly risk-averse or has other motives for making this argument.

One possible solution is to publish a disclaimer on each report, similar to those used by the Government Accountability Office:

This is a work of the U.S. government and is not subject to copyright protection in the United States. The published product may be reproduced and distributed in its entirety without further permission from GAO. However, because this work may contain copyrighted images or other material, permission from the copyright holder may be necessary if you wish to reproduce this material separately.

They could also redact copyrighted material where it became an issue. Additionally, as previously discussed, the publication of CRS reports for public consumption ought to be done by the GPO or Congress itself, rather than CRS—thus alleviating their burden.

5. Public access to CRS reports weakens CRS’ Speech or Debate Clause immunity

In its 1999 memo, CRS argued public access to its reports would weaken its immunity protection under the Speech or Debate Clause and could open CRS to libel, slander, and defamation actions. Gary Ruskin, then director of the Congressional Accountability Project, argued at the time that this was yet another overblown argument that didn’t hold up:

CRS products are rarely, if ever, defamatory or libelous. If anything, they are the opposite — measured, tempered, well-reasoned, and balanced. It is conceivable that, in an extremely rare occasion, someone might perhaps feel defamed or libeled by a CRS product. But notably, CRS, in its analysis, does not cite a single defamation, slander, or libel action brought against it by a member of the public.

Yet, CRS continues to repeat this argument. In the 2011 letter, they argue:

Presently, courts and agencies view CRS staff as an extension of Member and committee staff, working in a confidential capacity, and consider CRS to be performing a constitutionally protected legislative function under the Speech or Debate Clause….The current judicial and administrative perception of CRS might thereby be altered by a significant increase in public dissemination of CRS reports….This result might also intensify efforts by litigants to obtain, for the purposes of discovery, the files of CRS analysts who prepare the products, further jeopardizing confidentiality.

Stanley Brand, former general counsel to the U.S. House of Representatives, debunked this argument back in 1998. In a letter to Sen. John McCain, he stated:

I am writing to amplify the comments that I recently made…conceming applicability of the Speech or Debate Clause….I believe that the concerns expressed in the CRS memorandum are either overstated, or the extent they are not, provide no basis for arguing that protection of CRS works will be weakened by [public access].

Adding that:

I fail to see a realistic threat that CRS employees will be subjected to any increased risk of liability, or discovery of their files. Of course, nothing can prevent litigants from filing frivolous or ill-founded suits, but their successful prosecution or ability to obtain evidence from legislative files seems remote

R Street made the same point in a coalition letter supporting CRS transparency in 2015:

Congress has been distributing CRS’s reports to the public (often in the form of committee prints) since the 1970s. CRS even used to compile a list of CRS reports in the public domain. Nevertheless, no analyst has been hauled into court and forced to testify about his or her work for Congress.

Brand also points out that legislation for public access to CRS reports could include language to address these concerns:

In an abundance of caution, and to address CRS’ concerns, you might consider adding the following language to the bill: “Nothing herein shall be deemed or considered to diminish, qualify, condition, waive or otherwise affect applicability of the constitution’s Speech or Debate Clause, or any other privilege available to Congress, its agencies or their employees, to any CRS product made available on the Internet under this bill.”

Today, both House and Senate versions of the “Equal Access to Congressional Research Service Reports Act” contain this provision:

(a) No Effect On Speech Or Debate Clause.—Nothing in this Act may be construed to diminish, qualify, condition, waive, or otherwise affect the applicability of clause 1 of section 6 of article I of the Constitution of the United States (commonly known as the “Speech or Debate Clause”) or any other privilege available to Congress or Members, offices, or employees of Congress with respect to any CRS Report made available online under this Act.

While this may be an interesting question for legal theorists, it does not seem to be a real world problem. Once again,Congress has long published CRS reports at its discretion with no ill-consequences. Since CRS would not be the entity publishing the reports under the proposed legislation, it’s hard to see how their status as a legislative support agency would change. This is just another example of the fear, uncertainty and doubt being spread about public access.

It’s Time To Make Taxpayer-Funded Congressional Reports Available To The Public

This piece was originally published in the Daily Caller and co-authored by R Street Institute technology policy program director Zach Graves.

American taxpayers support the $140 million a year expenditures of the Congressional Research Service, an independent and highly influential think tank housed within the Library of Congress. The agency’s mission is to advise members and committees of Congress by providing objective, nonpartisan analysis. This typically includes explaining the workings of government agencies, the intricacies of complex policy issues in a range of disciplines and evaluating expensive, but often ineffective, government programs.

This research can be an invaluable resource for lawmakers and their staff, helping guide and inform key decisions in the policymaking process. At the same time, while taxpayers foot the bill, they are left out of the discussion, with no way to access this research short of calling their congressional office to ask for copies of each report.

This makes no sense. Most other government agencies can and do release their research. There is no reason the more than 1,200 new “general-distribution products” generated each year by CRS cannot also be made public.

That’s why we’re launching, a project to make all nonconfidential CRS reports available in one place for free (after all, you’ve already paid for it). The project is led by the Congressional Data Coalition, a cross-partisan partnership to promote open legislative information, whose members include Americans for Tax Reform, Demand Progress, the Sunlight Foundation and the R Street Institute. The site will grant the public access to more than 8,000 reports and report updates in one searchable database (it does not include confidential memoranda or private correspondence).

We don’t want to be in the business of hosting government reports. In the digital age, the government itself could and should be doing it. Legislation has been introduced in both chambers of Congress by a bipartisan group of members – led by Reps. Leonard Lance, R-N.J., and Mike Quigley, D-Ill., and Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. – that calls for CRS to publish these reports officially through the website However, the bill still needs greater public support and awareness to overcome stubborn and spurious opposition from high-ranking members, such as Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., and Tom Graves, R-Ga., who prefer to go about business as usual without inviting public scrutiny.

CRS was founded in 1914 as the Legislative Reference Service and originally adopted a policy of not making its reports publicly available due to concerns about the excessive cost to print and distribute them. This was justifiable at the time, since it was not the agency’s primary mission to serve the general public and, logistically, it would have led to unnecessary costs. In the digital age, this issue no longer exists. The Congressional Budget Office, which produces research on economic and budget issues and produces estimates of legislation, freely releases its work to the public online. So, too, does the Government Accountability Office, which investigates and audits government agencies and practices.

That’s not to say that CRS research is completely unavailable to the public. Congressional offices are free to distribute reports to curious constituents or other individuals on request. Thousands of reports can be found by a cursory Google search. Lobbyists and other D.C. insiders also can access the reports through expensive subscription services.

There’s no classified information in any of the reports on whose release could cause any harm. There should also be no concern that publishing would violate the privacy of report authors; the contact information of CRS analysts is redacted from the reports on our site. Regardless, other government agencies freely list authors’ contact information with their research, so this concern holds little merit.

The American public deserves to know what Congress knows. This ought not be a polarizing or partisan claim. It’s simply a matter of bringing government into the 21st century. There is broad support for making CRS research public. Groups on the left and the right, journalists, scholars, students, members of Congress and even former CRS employees all have supported public access to these reports. It’s time for Congress to be accountable to taxpayers and make this research public.

It’s Time To Make Taxpayer-Funded Congressional Reports Available To The Public

House launches a public-facing phone directory for all staff

As promised at the 2016 Legislative Data and Transparency Conference, the House of Representatives launched a public-facing phone directory for all its staff.

This is a tremendously useful tool. It provides authentic, up-to-date information on the people who work in the people’s house. While it (reasonably) does not contain email addresses, it has phone numbers, titles, and lots of other useful information about staff. It also will empower future analyses around employment in the House of Representatives, including discussions of legislative capacity and staff retention.

Until now, this information was only available through private vendors–for a fee–so the launch of the phone book amounts to a democratization of information about our elected representatives.

Using responsive design, so that it works on mobile devices, the phone directory allows anyone to obtain phone numbers and address information for any House staffer via a cleverly-designed interface. You can sort by member office, committee, or search for a particular staffer.

A screenshot of the new telephone directory website.

It’s also possible to download the underlying data set, whether as a CSV or PDF. This may save the House money on printing directories and provide more up-to-date information, particularly as staff move around all the time. The website was built by the Clerk and is extensible, so it may become possible to include the staff issue areas at a future date.