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