Congressmen reintroduce bill to make CRS reports public

By Jonathan Haggarty

The Government Publishing Office would be required to make Congressional Research Service reports publicly accessible over the internet, under legislation reintroduced last week by Reps. Leonard Lance, R-N.J., and Mike Quigley, D-Ill.

The CRS, a division of the Library of Congress, is known as Congress’ in-house “think tank.” House offices and committees historically have been free to publish CRS reports on their own websites for constituents to view and some third parties aggregate CRS data on websites like

But while taxpayers spend more than $100 million annually to fund CRS, timely access to these important documents is usually reserved to Washington insiders. There exists no official, aggregated source for taxpayers to access the CRS’ valuable and informative work.

R Street Vice President for Kevin Kosar, himself a veteran CRS analyst, testified recently before the House Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee, where he presented the panel with a letter signed by 25 former CRS employees with more than 570 combined years of service who all support an open public database of nonconfidential CRS reports.

There is strong precedent for public access to legislative support agency documents. In his subcommittee testimony, Kevin noted the Government Accountability Office, Congressional Budget Office and the Law Library of Congress all make their reports public, as do the 85 percent of G-20 countries whose parliaments have subject-matter experts.

Proposals like the Lance-Quigley bill would place publishing responsibilities with another entity, to ameliorate CRS concerns about the service having to publish the reports itself. Briefings and confidential memoranda would not be disclosed and data issued to the public through a searchable, aggregated database would only include nonconfidential information.

As Kevin noted in his testimony, the public deserves to be on equal footing with lobbyists and the Hill.

Alex Pollock: Data Transparency and Multiple Perspectives

At Data Coalition‘s Financial Data Summit in March, Alex Pollock, distinguished senior fellow with the R Street Institute, former president and CEO of the Federal Home Loan Bank of Chicago, provided the plenary address. These are Mr. Pollock’s remarks as prepared for delivery.

One question underlying the very interesting data project and proposed legislation we are considering today is the relationship of data transparency to multiple perspectives on financial reality.  In a minute, we will take up the question: Of all the possible views of a statue, which is the true view?

But first, let me say what a pleasure it is to participate in these discussions of financial transparency; the new Financial Transparency Act, a bill introduced in Congress last night; data standardization; and of course greater efficiency— we are all for making reporting and compliance less costly.

Let me add to this list the separation of data and analysis, or what we may call the multiplication of perspectives on the financial object.  The potential separation of data and analysis may allow a richer and more varied analysis and deeper understanding, in addition to greater efficiency, in both government and business.

As the new white paper, “Standard Business Reporting,” by the Data Foundation and PricewaterhouseCoopers, says: “By eliminating documents and PDFs from their intake, and replacing document-based reporting with open data…agencies…gained the ability to deploy analytics without any translation.”  Further, that standardized data “will allow individuals to focus on analytics and spend time understanding the data.”

In historical contrast to these ideas, it is easy for me to remember when we couldn’t do anything like that.  When I was a young international banking officer working in Germany, one day 4,000 miles to the west, back in the Chicago headquarters, the head of the International Banking Department had lunch with the Chairman of the Board.  Picture the Chairman’s elegant private dining room, with china, silver and obsequious service.  In the course of the lunch, the Chairman asked, “For our large customers, can we see in one place all the credit exposure we have to them in different places around the world?”  Said the Executive Vice President, International Banking, “Of course we can!”

The next day, all over the world, junior people like me were busy with yellow pads and calculators, wildly working to add up all the credit exposure grouped into corporate families, so those papers could be sent to somebody else to aggregate further until ultimately they all were added up for the Chairman.

That was definitely not data independent of documents.  Imagine the high probability, or rather the certainty, of error in all those manually prepared pages.

A classic problem in the philosophical theory of knowledge turns out to be highly relevant to the issues of data transparency.  It is the difference between the real object, the “thing in itself,” and any particular representation or perspective on it.  In philosophical terms, the object is different from any particular perspective on it, but we can only perceive it, or think about it, or analyze it, from particular perspectives.

Likewise, a reporting document is a composite of the data—the thing—and some theory or perspective on the data which form the questions the report is designed to pursue and answer.

Let’s consider a famous type of report: GAAP financial statements.

Somewhere far underneath all the high level abstractions reflecting many accounting theories are the debits and credits, myriads of them doing a complex dance.

I think of my old, practical-minded instructor in Accounting 101.  This essential subject I studied in night school when I was a trainee in the bank.  I would ride the Chicago L train to my class, my feet freezing from the cold draft blowing under the doors.  But this lesson got burned into my mind: “If you don’t know what to debit and what to credit,” he said, “then you don’t understand the transaction from an accounting point of view.”  This has always seemed to me exactly right.

Later on, in this spirit, I used to enjoy saying to accountants advising me on some accounting theory: “Just tell me what you are going to debit and what you are going to credit.”  This usually surprised them!

I wonder how many of us here could even begin to pass my old accounting instructor’s test when considering, say, the consolidated financial statements of JPMorgan.  What would you debit and credit to produce those?  Of course we don’t know.

For JPMorgan, and everybody else, the debits and credits are turned into financial statements by a very large set of elaborate theories and imposed perspectives.  These are mandated by thousands of pages of Financial Accounting Standards pronounced by the Financial Accounting Standards Board.  Many of these binding interpretations are highly debatable and subject to strongly held, inconsistent views among equally knowledgeable experts.

Any large regulatory report has the same character: it is a compound of data and theory.

An articulate recent letter to the editor of the Wall Street Journal argues that “The CPA profession has made the accounting rules so convoluted that GAAP financials no longer tell you whether the company actually made money.”  This, the letter continues, is “why companies are increasingly reporting non-GAAP.  Investors are demanding this information. …Why should public companies not supply shareholders with the same metrics that the management uses?”  Why not, indeed?

In other words, why not have multiple interpretative perspectives on the same data, instead of only one?  This is a fine example of the difference between one perspective—GAAP—and other possibly insightful perspectives on the same financial object.  Why not have as many perspectives readily available as prove to be useful?

We are meeting today in Washington, DC, a city full of equestrian statues of winning Civil War generals.  (The losing side is naturally not represented.)  Think, for example, of the statues of General Grant or Sheridan or Sherman or Logan—all astride their steeds.  Perhaps you can picture these heroic statues in imagination.

I like to ask people to consider this question:  What is the true view of a statue?  Is it the one from the front, the top, the side (which side?), or what?  Every view is a true view, but each is partial.  Even the view of such an equestrian statue directly from behind—featuring the horse’s derriere—is one true view among others.  It is not the most attractive one, perhaps, but it may make you think of some people you know.

Likewise, what is the true view of a company, a bank, a government agency, a regulated activity, or a customer relationship?  Every document is one view.

Pondering this brings back a memory of my professor of 19th century German philosophy.  “The object,” he proposed, “is the sum of all possible perspectives on it.”

Similarly, we may say that a financial structure, or a policy problem, or an entity or an activity is the sum of many perspectives on it.  The ideal of open data available for multiple reports, analyses and purposes is a practical application of this metaphysical idea.

The ideal is not new.  In 1975, I went to London to work on a project to define all the elements—what were supposed to become the standardized data—for characterizing all the bank’s corporate customer relationships.  The computing technology expert leading the project convincingly explained how these data elements could then be combined and reordered into all the reports and analyses we would desire.

Then, as now, it was a great idea—but then it never actually happened.  It was before its time in technical demands.  But now I suspect the time has really come.  Fortunately, since then, we have had four decades of Moore’s Law operating, so that our information capacities are more than astronomically expanded.


  • By freeing transparent, open data from being held captive in the dictated perspectives of thousands of reporting documents,
  • By saving data from being lost in the muddle of mutually inconsistent documents,
  • Can we provide transparent data, consistently defined, which will promote a wide variety of multiple perspectives to enrich our analysis and create new insights,
  • Not to mention making the process a lot cheaper?

This would be a great outcome of the project under consideration in our discussions today.


GovTrack testimony to the House of Representatives on public access to legislative information

Everything that our government does starts with an “appropriation” that sets a funding level for it. When Congress sets funding levels for the government as a whole, it also sets funding levels for itself to pay congressional staff, the Capitol police, to maintain the office buildings, and so on. (It’s about 0.1% of the total federal budget.)

On Wednesday we will be testifying before the House subcommittee with jurisdiction over Congress’s own funding limit — the House Committee on Appropriations Subcommittee on Legislative Branch — to talk about the importance of funding public access to legislative information so that we can bring that information to you.

You should be able to watch us here on Wednesday at 10:00 am Eastern.

Some of our testimony will be based on feedback we got on Twitter.

 We’ll be commending the committee for supporting public access to legislative information in recent years (background) and our requests mirror those that the Congressional Data Coalition (which we are a member of) has made over the years.

Our written testimony is pasted below:

Testimony for the Record: FY 2018 Legislative Branch Budget Request

Submitted by: Joshua Tauberer, Ph.D. President, Civic Impulse, LLC
To: House Committee on Appropriations Subcommittee on Legislative Branch
Regarding: Public Access to Legislative Information

April 28, 2017

Dear members of the subcommittee:

Each year ten million individuals use our free website to research and track legislation in the U.S. Congress. Our users include journalists, legislative affairs professionals, legislative staff on the Hill, advocates, teachers, students, and of course member of the general public. This testimony is submitted on their behalf.

I would like to begin by commending the subcommittee for its support of important programs in the last several years that have allowed us to bring accurate and timely information to our users:

  • The House Bulk Data Taskforce’s legislative bulk data program, which went live in 2016 and was a joint effort of the Government Publishing Office, the Library of Congress, the Clerk of the House, and the Senate, has allowed us to disseminate the most accurate information yet about the status of pending legislation.
  • Several projects of the House Committee on House Administration including, publishing the United States Code in XML (with the Law Revision Counsel) [In my personal capacity I was a sub-contractor on this project.], improving the bill drafting process using XML (with the Office of Legislative Counsel), and the yearly Legislative Data and Transparency conference.
  • Improvements to the House Clerk’s website, including new member information.
  • The launch of by the Library of Congress, and its agile-lead improvements since its launch, which is an example for the whole legislative branch in how best to develop modern technology.
  • Digitization and publication of core historical documents by the Government Publishing Office and Library of Congress, including the Congressional Record, Statutes at Large, and Constitution Annotated (though more work is needed here).

Public access to legislative information remains an important need, and the subcommittee’s support for programs that provide such access ensures that accurate information reaches the American public — the tens of millions of Americans who include not only our users but also Americans who learn about their government by reading newspapers and magazines which rely on our service and for their research.

I also commend the staff at the House offices and legislative branch agencies named above who have done remarkable work in producing accurate, durable, and timely information within the constraints that an institution like the House of Representatives requires.

To continue the subcommittee’s commitment to public access to legislative information, I respectfully recommend the following:

  • Create a public advisory committee on legislative transparency for stakeholders to engage systematically on this issue, including but not limited to access to data.
  • Make the Bulk Data Taskforce permanent and fund the participation of the offices and agencies that are members of the taskforce.
  • Support congressional publication of other important information in a structured data format, including amendments, House committee votes, the Biographical Directory (Bioguide), and committee witness documents.
  • Continue to support efforts to modernize the House’s technology systems especially with respect to the work of committees and efforts to connect constituents to their representatives. Cultivate the legislative branch’s in-house technology talent as other parts of the government are doing.
  • Increase House staff levels above their current historic lows so the House has sufficient capacity for policy analysis and oversight and direct the Congressional Research Service to report on on how staffing levels impact the House’s capacity to function, and make that report public.
  • Systematically release the non-confidential Congressional Research Service reports to the general public. Years of experience has demonstrated that public access to these reports enhances the public debate without creating a commensurate burden.

I would be glad to discuss these topics further and tell you more about how the work of the House on public access to legislative information translates into a stronger democracy.


Joshua Tauberer
President, Civic Impulse, LLC (

Originally published here.

Library of Congress, National Archives Host Wikipedia Edit-a-Thon

On Friday, the Library of Congress, the National Archives, and Wikimedia D.C. hosted an Edit-a-Thon, focused on updating committee information on Wikipedia. This is the second such event, and the first to be hosted at the Library of Congress.Continue Reading

Whip Watch 2.0

On Thursday, Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer launched Whip Watch 2.0, a free app that provides the public (and congressional staffers) a real-time mobile view into the Democrats’ whip operation. In addition to all the neat features we wrote about when Whip Watch first launched in June 2015, it allows users to see vote totals, including vote breakdowns by party, on floor votes as it happens, as well as show the time remaining on a vote and how long a vote stays open after it was supposed to close.Continue Reading

Upcoming Tech and Congress Events

Clear your schedule Tuesday, April 4th, from 4:30-7:30 to celebrate the accomplishments of 123 Members of Congress who participated in the 2016 Congressional App Challenge. Located at the Rayburn House Office Building, this reception and demo day will feature remarks from Reps. Goodlatte, Eshoo, Royce, and Moulton. RSVP here!

CodeX FutureLaw 2017
On April 6th, from 8:30 AM to 5:45 PM, CodeX–the Stanford Center for Legal Informatics–will bring together academics, entrepreneurs, lawyers, investors, and policy makers to host its fifth annual conference on the impact of technology on the both the legal profession and the law itself. Register now to attend fascinating panel events on topics such as the “Rise of the Legal Chatbot,” and “Legal Education Reform in the Age of the Robolawyer.”

Bulk Data Task Force
Keep April 6th open, from 1:00-2:30, for the next meeting of the congressional Bulk Data Task Force. This legislative-branch wide working group is moving Congress into the future. More information to come.

Congressional Committees and Hearings Wikipedia Edit-a-thon
The National Archives and the Law Library of Congress are hosting a Wikipedia Edit-a-thon focused on Congressional Committees and Hearings at the Library of Congress on Friday, April 7th from 9:30 AM to to 5 PM. Special guests and speakers include Dr. Carla Hayden, current Librarian of Congress, Katherine A. Scott, the associate historian from the Senate Historical Office, and Robert Brammer, a Legal Reference Librarian who will share congressional committee and hearing resources available from the Library of Congress. Spaces are limited, so register now!

The House Rules Should be Publicly Available in Advance of Their Adoption

At the start of the 115th Congress, there was a fight over whether the Office of Congressional Ethics should continue its existence. I won’t get into the merits of the disagreement here (although I’ve written about it elsewhere), but how it occurred is interesting.

The Office of Congressional Ethics is one of the many offices and agencies created by the rules of the House of Representatives, which are adopted on the first day of the new Congress. The House Rules are contained in a simple resolution, and that resolution usually is released to the public at most 24 hours before the vote, and sometimes with even less notice. At the start of the 115th Congress, the Republican Conference did not finalize the proposed rules until the night before they were to be considered by the House, and the full text didn’t leak out in full until the day of the vote.

More or less, this is the general practice of both parties, which is neither transparent nor helpful to the deliberative process. And yet, bills and joint resolutions were publicly available online for 3 days in advance of when they were voted on, just as the House rules require. What was going on?Continue Reading

The House of Representatives Orders Seconds on Legislative Transparency

Once again, at the start of the 115th Congress, the House of Representatives included an order in its rules package in support of public access to legislative information.

(m) BROADENING AVAILABILITY OF LEGISLATIVE DOCUMENTS IN MACHINE-READABLE FORMATS.—The Committee on House Administration, the Clerk, and other officers and officials of the House shall continue efforts to broaden the availability of legislative documents in machine readable formats in the One Hundred Fifteenth Congress in furtherance of the institutional priority of improving public availability and use of legislative information produced by the House and its committees.

What this means it the House of Representatives will continue–as a matter of policy–its work in making information about the legislative process available to the public.

As readers of this blog know, there has been a tremendous amount of progress in the last few years, including: publishing structured data about legislation, publication of bills and amendments to be considered by the Rules committee, the publication of the House’s rules as XML, publication of a House phone directory, publication of the U.S. code as structured data, publication of the committee hearing and markup schedule, online committee video, and more. And, even more remarkably, this is all being done on a bipartisan basis.

I’m looking forward to seeing what will be accomplished in the 115th Congress.

Ending GovTrack’s bulk data and API

Open legislative data has been a core part of GovTrack’s mission since 2005, when there wasn’t very much of it. We were the first to provide comprehensive information about Congress’s legislative activities in an open, structured data format — a technical format that software developers (building websites and apps), journalists, and researchers used for new and unexpected purposes to create a more open and accountable government.

Eventually other organizations and Congress itself joined the effort. Official data from Congress reached new heights this year, after a long campaign by us and other advocates, and organizations like ProPublica have become data providers too.

Consequently, I’ve decided that it is time for us to end our work on open data so we can use our time more effectively on other parts of

Continue Reading

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.