Former Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said,“everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” In 1914, an uncharacteristically foresighted Congress spent $25,000 to establish a fact-finding arm whose mission was to gather “data…bearing upon legislation, and to render such data serviceable to Congress.” A century later, the Congressional Research Service (CRS) generates hundreds of analytical nonpartisan reports on legislative issues each year.
CRS reports often inform public debate. A recent analysis, which found no correlation between economic growth and cutting tax rates for the wealthy, set off a re-appraisal of long-held orthodoxy about tax policy. A 2006 analysis questioning the legal rationale supporting the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping policy caused many to look at the issue with fresh eyes. The work of CRS is routinely cited in news reports, by the courts, in congressional debate and by government watchdogs.
However, unlike its sister agencies that investigate federal spending and analyze the budgetary effects of legislation, CRS does not release its reports to the public on a regular basis.
This was not always so, and even now CRS routinely shares its reports with officials in the executive and judicial branches and with the press upon request. Congressional offices also act to disseminate the reports, publishing some on their websites, frequently sending others to constituents in response to requests, and giving them to reporters (often to help push a political narrative).
But for a member of the public, it’s difficult to access reports generated by the 600-person $100-million-a-year agency in any comprehensive way. Efforts by nonprofit organizations to gather and re-publish the reports online have met with limited success. The private sector has stepped in, selling access to the reports at $20 a pop, but the premium accentuates the gap between the elites and everyone else.
For more than a decade-and-a-half, some members of Congress have pushed legislation to ensure that CRS reports intended for a general congressional audience are routinely made available to the public. These lawmakers believe that all Americans should have an equal opportunity to be educated about important legislative issues. They know that increasing visibility of the reports will make the reports better, too. In the current 113th Congress, Reps. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.)and Leonard Lance (R-N.J.) are leading the charge in the House of Representatives.
CRS leadership has quietly undermined public-access efforts. They feared an influx of public comments and a weakening of the special relationship they believe CRS has with Congress. However, CRS has never been obligated to respond to public comment, and there hasn’t been a deluge of inquiries even with the reports being sold to special interests and made available by activists online. Moreover, the target audience of CRS — congressional staff — have increasingly turned to Google and Wikipedia as a starting point for research.
CRS’s continued relevance to policymakers is predicated on releasing its reports to the public that they serve. In an era where just about everyone expresses an opinion online, we must ensure that we have all the facts as well.