Now you can see what reports have been published by the Congressional Research Service

Did you know the Congressional Research Service has published reports on the federal defense budget, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamp) benefits, changes to hemp-growing restrictions and porcine epidemic diarrhea virus? Now you do, thanks to the R Street Institute’s Governance Project.

Using the Scribd digital library service, we have published 20 years of CRS annual reports online, including lists of the reports published by the agency. The report lists are available for viewing and downloading here.Continue Reading

Seven years ago today, WikiLeaks published 6,700 CRS reports…and nobody was hurt

Feb. 8, 2009 began like any other Sunday for me. I was up early taking care of a young child, gulping coffee and scanning the news. The New York Times turned my stomach with its report that a Polish engineer had been beheaded by the Taliban. The Grey Lady also gleefully described the tribulations of Republican Party Chairman Michael Steele. A happier bit of news came fromThe Washington Post. Its sports section reminded me that my Cleveland Cavs were playing the Los Angeles Lakers on television at 3:30 that afternoon.

At some point that morning, I managed to get online. (I did not have a smartphone back then.) The Internet was abuzz with speculation about the 51st Grammy Awards, which were that night. (Robert Plant and Alison Krauss would fare well.) And there sat an email from a colleague of mine at the Congressional Research Service, asking if I had heard that WikiLeaks had published a trove of our reports.

I hadn’t.

Julian Assange’s outfit announced its work online with relish:

Change you can download. WikiLeaks has released nearly a billion dollars worth of quasi-secret reports commissioned by the United States Congress. The 6,780 reports, current as of this month, comprise over 127,000 pages of material on some of the most contentious issues in the nation, from the U.S. relationship with Israel to the financial collapse. Nearly 2,300 of the reports were updated in the last 12 months, while the oldest report goes back to 1990. The release represents the total output of the Congressional Research Service (CRS) electronically available to Congressional offices. The CRS is Congress’s analytical agency and has a budget in excess of $100M per year.

My stomach fell, and various thoughts ran through my mind. What would happen at the office? Were my reports in the trove? (Answer: yes.) My email address and 5-digit phone extension were on our reports. Would lobbyists and angry members of the public start contacting us to complain about our work?

That week at the office, I and many other CRS employees jabbered anxiously in the hallways and over coffee about how this could have happened and what it meant for the agency.

As it happened, the WikiLeaks massive report dump had no effect on us. In my succeeding six years at the agency not once did I hear any employee report any harm had resulted. The reason was not difficult to discern: many, if not most, of the CRS reports already had been put online by the Federation of American Scientists and various agencies of the U.S. government itself. Lobbyists and other hyperpolitical sorts inclined to pressure CRS already had our reports, often acquired via pricy subscription services.

This bit of history is important to keep in mind as Congress considers legislation to expand public access to CRS reports. There are individuals on Capitol Hill who claim bad things will happen if this commonsensical reform is enacted. The WikiLeaks report dump demonstrates that posting CRS reports to a central public repository (like will do no harm to either CRS or its employees.

Today, more than 27,000 copies of CRS reports are scattered about the Internet. The average citizen, however, does not know where to look for them or what keywords will bring them up in Google. (Compare this search versus this search.) It’s way past time for Congress to give the public some value for the $100 million it spends on CRS each year.

Will the needless secrecy surrounding CRS reports end this year?

Not quite a year back, Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., sought to do a little good for the American public. He offered an amendment to an appropriations bill that would require the Congressional Research Service to post publicly a list of the titles of its reports. Advocates for taxpayers and proponents for government transparency were delighted.

The CRS is an agency in the Library of Congress. Its staff of civil servants produce 1,000 or more reports each year. CRS reports describe government agencies (e.g., the Federal Election Commission); explain policies (e.g., SNAP/food stamps); and tally government spending (e.g., Department of Defense appropriations). Congress does not release these nonpartisan reports as a matter of course, but those within the Beltway know where to find copies. More than 20,000 congressional staff have access to CRS reports, so access is not an issue for lobbyists and policy-insiders.

Quigley explained to House appropriators that CRS reports “often are extraordinarily well-done” and that making the reports available to the public “would empower our constituents with extraordinary information about key issues, policies, and the budgets we are debating here in Congress.” Taxpayers pay $107 million per year to fund CRS and none of its reports contain classified or confidential information. Additionally, two other legislative branch agencies – the Congressional Budget Office and the Government Accountability Office – already release their reports publicly. (See here for a dozen other arguments for public release of CRS reports.)

Quigley’s amendment would not have made the contents of the reports public. All it would have done is enable the public to better know what reports exist. Having a list would enable John Q. Public to more easily request copies of CRS reports through their members of Congress. Quigley’s measure also would have been helpful to congressional staff, who labor to respond to constituents’ vague requests. (“I heard there was a report on agriculture that talked about subsidies. Can you get it for me?”)

Sadly, Quigley’s amendment never got a vote or even a discussion. Someone in the room disliked the amendment and Quigley reluctantly withdrew it.

The whole scene was bizarre and out-of-character for the House, which has shown great willingness to open legislative information and data to the public. No possible harm could come from publishing a list of CRS reports. In fact, such lists have been produced for decades. The CRS publishes an annual report for Congress that details its achievements and enumerates all its new reports, complete with their titles and authors’ names. It would be very easy for the CRS to post these reports on its website. Instead, the agency devotes time and expense to post a redacted version of its annual report that omits the list of reports. Why? Possibly, the House Committee on Administration requires it. But nobody will say publicly.

However, all is not lost. One can find the lists of CRS’s nonredacted annual reports online. Older copies placed long ago in federal depository libraries have been digitized in recent years. (See here for example.) Copies of CRS’ lists of reports for Congress from the past 20 years have been posted online by government transparency advocates (see here and here). These workarounds are not ideal, but they are helpful.

And what about Rep. Mike Quigley? He has not reintroduced his amendment thus far. But that does not mean he has given up the fight. Rather, he joined forces with Rep. Leonard Lance, R-N.J., who wrote legislation calling on CRS to publish entire CRS reports—not just a list of them— on the House Clerk’s website.

Congress will not be in DC much this year, thanks to the election. One hopes it can muster the wee bit of energy needed to put an end to the needless secrecy surrounding CRS reports. The public supports open government and would be grateful for increased access to honest information about their government’s doings.

Annual Report of the Congressional Research Service 2014 by R Street Institute

Open Government Data Aids Congressional Oversight

According to the U.S. Constitution, Congress is supposed to maintain watchful eye over the executive branch. These days, there is just no way that Congress can do that. The executive branch has 4.1 million employees, 180 agencies, and spends $3.9 trillion each year. The people’s branch needs help, and open government data enables individuals outside Congress to help with oversight. Read more in my article for the Public Administration Times.

Federal Snow Storm Aid, Self-Government and CRS Reports

(Crossposted from R Street)

The Federation of American Scientists recently posted a copy of a report titled, “Major Disaster Declarations for Snow Assistance and Severe Winter Storms: An Overview.” The document was produced by the Congressional Research Service, an agency where I worked for a decade. The report is fascinating on a few counts.

First, it likely will come as news to much of America that the U.S. government provides funds to localities clobbered by blizzards. The Federal Emergency Management Agency administers aid for both “snow assistance” and for “severe winter storms.” What’s the difference? The report explains:

“According to FEMA, a snowstorm is an event in which a state has record or near-record snowfall in one or more counties that overwhelms the capability of state and local government to respond to the event. Severe winter storms, on the other hand, are events that occur during the winter season that include one or more of the following conditions: snow, ice, high winds, blizzard conditions, and other winter conditions that cause substantial physical damage or property loss.”

The CRS report finds that $2.7 billion in federal aid was provided over the past five years, most of it going to help cover the cost of debris removal, infrastructure repair, and, yes, snow removal. This isnot a new policy unleashed by an activist Obama Administration—in fact, it is carried out consequent to the Stafford Act (42 U.S.C. 5122), a four-decade old statute. As another CRS reportnotes, a century ago, the feds had no role in disaster response and recovery. It was purely a local matter. But, bit by bit, the responsibility for disaster response and recovery has shifted from states and localities to the feds.

This snow aid report also is noteworthy because it illustrates a basic truth that is not widely accepted: governance is incredibly complicated. Too often, one hears it said that anyone with good horse sense can stride in Congress and begin governing well. In truth, governance, particularly in the 21st century, is fantastically complex. The federal government is a multi-trillion dollar conglomerate, undertaking an incredible number of activities. To be an effective legislator or congressional staffer who can make smart policy, one needs an immense amount of schooling in the nuts-and-bolts of government works. And as this report illustrates, that is a major role of the Congressional Research Service. This report walks the reader through the basics, explaining what the policy is, what it costs, and how it is administered.

Which leads to a final observation. Nowhere else on the Internet can one find this information in one document. This report became available to the public only because FAS, a private organization, has friends on the Hill. FAS, commendably, publicly shares whatever CRS reports it can get, which is a real benefit. Currently, CRS is not allowed to share its reports with the public, and Congress itself does not post them on Congress should share these reports with the public. The public would benefit from free access to these nonpartisan, objective documents. CRS reports help Members of Congress better do their jobs, and they can help the public better understand the government that is to serve them.

Collection of CRS reports released to the public

Something rare has occurred—a collection of reports authored by the Congressional Research Service has been published and made freely available to the public. The 400-page volume, titled, “The Evolving Congress,” and was produced in conjunction with CRS’s celebration of its 100th anniversary this year. Congress, not CRS, published it. (Disclaimer: Before departing CRS in October, I helped edit a portion of the volume.)

The Congressional Research Service does not release its reports publicly. CRS posts its reports at, a website accessible only to Congress and its staff. The agency has a variety of reasons for this policy, not least that its statute does not assign it this duty. Congress, with ease, could change this policy. Indeed, it already makes publicly available the bill digests (or “summaries”) CRS produces at

The Evolving Congress” is a remarkable collection of essays that cover a broad range of topic. Readers would be advised to start from the beginning. Walter Oleszek provides a lengthy essay on how Congress has changed over the past century. Michael Koempel then assesses how the job of Congressman has evolved (or devolved depending on one’s perspective). “Over time, both Chambers developed strategies to reduce the quantity of time given over to legislative work in order to accommodate Members’ other duties,” Koempel observes.

The Evolving Congress“’s 20 remaining essays are devoted to close-up looks at Congress (e.g., Members demography, congressional staff) and how policy gets made (e.g., the rushed establishment of DHS, the perennial extension of tax breaks). All together, the essays inform the reader how Congress, despite its evident dysfunction, does get some things done—often in creative ways.

If anything, “The Evolving Congress” provides further evidence that CRS’s reports should be released to the public. Congress and federal policy are complex, often maddeningly so. Freeing CRS’s reports would give the public something tangible in return for the $107 million it pays for CRS’s operations: an oasis of unbiased information in an Internet awash with half-truths and outright buncombe. And unlike most political science research, CRS’s work tends to be easy to read.

Hopefully, the 114th Congress will end this policy and post CRS reports online at

CRS The Evolving Congress (December 2014) by Kevin R. Kosar

Kevin R. Kosar is the Director of the Governance Project and a Senior Fellow at the R Street Institute. He worked at the Congressional Research Service from 2003-2014.