Giving the Public Access to Congress' 'Brain'

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The Obama administration has committed to making government more transparent by making more information available online.

It has reversed an executive order that encouraged too much secrecy, and ordered a top-to-bottom, 120-day review of how the use of new technologies can help the government engage with the public.

But at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, openness is slower to catch on.

Critically, Congress has yet to end an outdated policy that prevents ordinary Americans from having easy access to the findings of the Congressional Research Service (CRS), otherwise known as "the brains" of our legislative body.

CRS is funded by taxpayers to the tune of about $100 million a year and generates in-depth reports on critical matters of public policy ranging from forestry to national defense. These reports play a key role in the legislative process, providing the factual support for much of what eventually becomes policy.

CRS Publishes Reports on Economy, Public Health, National Security, More

Concerned about the future of the country's big banks? CRS just finished a report on options for dealing with insolvency of major banks.

Tired of being stopped at the airport for special screening? CRS recently released a report on the issues posed by airport-passenger screening.

Each of these reports is full of the insightful writing, top-notch analysis, and backed with unclassified, unimpeachable research. Yet few people outside the halls of Congress will ever benefit from these timely reports because of indefensible policies that keep them out of the public's hands.

If relatively few people outside of Capitol Hill have even heard of CRS, it is partly because CRS goes to lengths to make itself unknowable.

An Internet search for CRS turns up a "jobs" page and a brief history of the service, but no official way to obtain CRS reports. That's because CRS has no public-facing function to distribute the reports.

The organization works directly for Congress, as an arm of the Library of Congress, and provides its reports exclusively to lawmakers and staff.

CRS Reports Are Not Classified But Still No Simple Online Tool to Distribute Them

The reports aren't classified -- lawmakers will provide individual reports to their constituents on request -- but, as of this writing, more than a decade into the e-government age, there remains no simple online tool citizens can use to obtain the reports as they are published.

The policy of not distributing CRS reports to the public is a relic of the pre-Internet age. At one point, lawmakers argued that printing and distributing the reports would be too costly, and that responding to public demand would divert CRS from its important work.

Those arguments went out the window when CRS developed an internal Web site that lawmakers use to search and download the latest reports. Simply making that site available to the public would cost next to nothing.

Another, more troubling argument that's been floated as a reason for keeping the reports from the public is that lawmakers may feel somehow constrained in requesting CRS reports if they knew the findings of those reports would be made available to the public, particularly if they feared those findings may contradict their established political positions.

Why Do Lawmakers Hide Reports From Public?

What member of Congress wants the public to see that expert advisors warned against an approach to a problem when the member ignored the advice?

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