This is exciting news!
The Library of Congress will begin publishing Congressional Research Service (CRS) reports online within 90 days of enactment of the Omnibus, which passed the House this afternoon. The non-confidential non-partisan reports, issued by Congress’s think tank, provide an even-handed discussion of topical policy matters being considered by legislators. This will apply to approximately 3,000 reports annually.
Until now, there has not been a comprehensive, official source online that provides all Americans equal access to the reports, although they have been routinely released to the public by Members of Congress, made available through non-profit websites like EveryCRSReport.com and the Federation of American Scientists, and sold by third parties.
Other CRS products, such as CRS memos that contain individualized advice to Members of Congress and often are confused with CRS reports, will remain confidential.
The members of Congress who led this effort include: Reps. Mike Quigley (D-IL), Leonard Lance (R-NJ), Kevin Yoder (R-KS), Tim Ryan (D-OH), and Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and John McCain (R-AZ).
Daniel Schuman, policy director, Demand Progress, said:
“Congressional Research Service (CRS) reports are the gold standard when it comes to even-handed, non-partisan analysis of the important issues before Congress. For too long, they’ve only been primarily available to the well-connected and the well-heeled. At long last, Congress will make the non-confidential reports available to every American for free.”
This happened only because of the hard work and dedication of Reps. Mike Quigley, Leonard Lance, Kevin Yoder, Tim Ryan, and Senators Patrick Leahy and John McCain. Indeed, Sens. Leahy and McCain have been working to bring transparency to CRS Reports for 20 years.”
It has been a long slog to get to this point. Congress began to use the Internet in 1994, led by Sen. Ted Kennedy’s personal office website, and soon thereafter civil society began asking for online access to CRS reports. The first bills on releasing CRS reports to the public arose in the 105th Congress (1997-1998); S. 1578 was introduced by Sens. McCain (R-AZ) and Leahy (D-VT) in the Senate, and H.R. 3131 was introduced by Reps. Chris Shays (R-CT) and David Price (D-NC) in the House.
In the 20 years since, the Library of Congress’s Congressional Research Service resisted providing systematic direct public access even as the public and Members of Congress urged a more modern approach and many Members and Committees—as well as executive branch agencies— published select reports on their websites. Civil society organizations filled the void by publishing the reports they could find, including the Federation of American Scientists and the now-defunct OpenCRS, built by Josh Ruihley.
For the last 9 years, Daniel Schuman, a former CRS attorney who now serves as policy director at Demand Progress and formerly was policy counsel at the Sunlight Foundation and policy director at CREW, helped to coordinate civil society advocacy around public access to the reports. He was recently joined in those efforts by Kevin Kosar, vice president of policy at the R Street Institute and formerly a manager at CRS.
Together, and with many others, they built up a public access campaign that included a letter rebutting CRS’s arguments against releasing the reports signed by 41 civil society organizations, a letter from 22 former CRS employees with more than 500 years of experience in favor of public access, and a drum beat of editorials and public events. In addition, they published the website EveryCRSReport.com, which contains all current CRS reports and some historical ones, with 14,430 reports online and increasing daily.
The open source website, built by Dr. Josh Tauberer of Govtrack, was intended as a model for Congress, and allows users to read the reports on their mobile devices, download them onto their Kindles, subscribe to receive notices of the most recent reports, and show how a report has changed over time using track-changes.
Public access to CRS reports began to progress substantially when Rep. Mike Quigley forced a vote in the House appropriations committee in the 114th Congress, which put members on the record and surfaced allies. In the 115th Congress, House Legislative Branch Appropriations Committee Chairman Kevin Yoder and Ranking Member Tim Ryan held a public hearing on the topic and later included reform language in their draft appropriations bill. The measure survived an effort to strip it in the full committee and was enacted by the House. In the Senate, legislation authored by Sens. Leahy and McCain was included in the appropriations bill, which passed that chamber.
The language included in the Omnibus largely (but not entirely) mirrors that included in the Senate appropriations bill, which itself is virtually identical to the legislation introduced by Reps. Lance and Quigley in the House and Sens. Leahy and McCain in the Senate. Note that Sens. McCain and Leahy have been sponsoring legislation on this topic for two decades. Because the omnibus language is bill text, public access to CRS reports will become law and not require new appropriations language each year. The Library of Congress will have the obligation to publish the reports online within 90 days of enactment, which can be extended to 180 days.
The legislative language can be found in the Omnibus on page 1082 lines 8-18 and page 1092-1104. According to CRS Annual Report, in 2017 CRS issued 1,121 new reports and general distribution products, and updated 2,134 reports and other products. Going forward, these documents will now be publicly available. By contrast, in 2017 CRS issued 2,573 confidential memoranda, which will not (and should not) be publicly released by CRS.
More resources and background on the effort to provide equal public access to CRS reports is available here.