Giving the Public Access to Congress' 'Brain'

capitolABC News Photo Illustration

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Critically, Congress has yet to end an outdated policy that prevents ordinary Americans from having easy access to the findings of the Congressional Research Service (CRS), otherwise known as "the brains"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

The flip-side of that argument is the idea that CRS reports may become politicized as members seek to have reports produced, not for the wealth of insight and information they contain but merely to prop up a political point.

Such sentiments may be sad reflections on the role of facts in policymaking, but these are not legitimate reasons to deny U.S. citizens access to information that they pay to produce.

Here, too, technological advancement has rendered moot the question of whether the public should have access to CRS reports.

For many years, commercial services have obtained the reports through their own channels and selling them for a fee. For lobbyists and other insiders who rely on the information, the fee is inconsequential, but for ordinary U.S. taxpayers, it means that they can only have ready access to the reports if they pay for them ... twice.

In 2008, 3 Million Reports Were Downloaded From

In 2005, my organization sought to address this disparity by creating Open CRS (, a Web site that collects and indexes CRS reports and makes them available to the public free of charge.

Just how popular is this free service? Last year, almost 3 million reports were downloaded from Open CRS.

We're proud of Open CRS, but it should not be viewed as the full solution. We don't have access to all the reports and can't always be sure what we're missing because, well, CRS doesn't even publish a publicly accessible index of their reports.

In any event, these are Congressional documents and the policy of making it hard for citizens to get the facts is a congressional policy. In an era of openness and transparency, it is Congress's responsibility to finally open CRS to the public.

The good news is that Congress may finally be coming to the same conclusion. Sen. Joseph Lieberman has proposed a resolution to make CRS reports available to the public.

He has been joined by six other senators. This isn't the first time that lawmakers have sought to end the long-obsolete CRS policy but, hopefully, the new spirit of openness that is sweeping Washington will help push this common-sense policy to passage.

Leslie Harris is president and CEO of the Center for Democracy and Technology.