American taxpayers spend $100 million every year to finance reports by the Congressional Research Service, yet are not granted access to the reports they produce. Instead, full access is available only to Congressional staffers or those who are well connected enough to get a hold of these reports.
Since taxpayers are financing the CRS, it is only right that they have access to reports. Public access to CRS reports is a basic issue of transparency and giving taxpayers access to information that will enrich public knowledge. As ATR’s President Grover Norquist said: “while taxpayers foot the bill, they are left out of the discussion, with no way to access this research short of calling their congressional office to ask for copies of each report.”
There is no reason these reports should not be public. Even the concerns CRS has raised do not hold any merit. While publishing a report online could invoke fair use doctrine and draw a liability to the publication, all that is needed is a disclaimer to address any copyright concerns. Granting public access does not mean confidential reports must be released, but only that taxpayers be allowed free, public access to non-confidential reports.
In fact, CRS is an outlier when it comes to public access – other agencies like the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) already make their research freely available to the public.
When CRS was founded in 1914, it adopted a policy not to make the reports public because it would cost too much to print and distribute. In the digital age this limitation no longer exists.
Today, copies of CRS reports are already widely found on the web and frequently sent to curious constituents. They are not kept secret, yet are not made widely available.
There is broad support for public access to CRS. Americans for Tax Reform and 45 other organizations wrote a letter to Congress urging expansion of Congressional Research Service (CRS) reports to the public. [The letter can be found here.]
Similarly, there is bipartisan support in Congress for this change. Last year, Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT) along with Representatives Leonard Lance (R-NJ) and Mike Quigley (D-IL) released legislation to provide for the online publication of CRS reports to the public. Members of Congress should again support expanding public access to CRS reports.
There is no reason CRS reports should not be made public. Granting public access to CRS reports is commonsense and increases transparency in the government.