Groundswell in support of Public Access to CRS Reports

Over the last week the issue of public access to non-confidential CRS reports has come into focus. A grassroots effort has sent hundreds of emails from constituents to select Members of Congress over the last two weeks. Transparency organizations and former CRS employees called for public access. A panel of experts met to discuss the issue on Capitol Hill. And there have been a handful of news stories. I thought it might be helpful to round-up all that information.

We expect this issue will continue to be in the news, especially with all the changes contemplated at the Library of Congress. To be clear, we are advocating comprehensive public access to non-confidential CRS reports, addressing the serious issue of inequitable access by lobbyists and special interests when compared to the general public. We are not calling for public access to confidential memoranda or advice.

Last Thursday, the Congressional Transparency Caucus convened a discussion on public access. A panel addressed why non-confidential CRS reports should be publicly available; the legal and constitutional issues; the policy issues; and the CRS perspective. Video is available here. Participants included former Rep. Chris Shays (R-CT), Stan Brand, Kevin Kosar, Prue Adler, and me as moderator. Reps. Leonard Lance (R-NJ) and Mike Quigley (D-IL) both spoke; they have introduced House Resolution 34 in support of public access.

Also on Thursday, 22 former CRS employees with more than a collective 500-year tenure at the agency released this letter calling for public access. On average, each employee was with CRS for more than 25 years.

In late August, a coalition of more than 41 organizations called for public access to the non-confidential reports and rebutted any concerns with their release (see appendix).

In addition to this favorable New York Times editorial, and op-ed by Reps. Lance and Quigley, several news stories have come out recently.

Public access is a bipartisan issue everyone can support. We believe in a strong CRS that serves Congress, and Congress’ interests are helped by ensuring the non-confidential reports — not the memos or advice — are available to the general public.

More Resources

Member Statements

Candice Miller, Chair, Committee on House Administration
Across the Capitol, House Administration Committee Chairwoman Candice Miller (R-Mich.), who has primary jurisdiction over the CRS, said in an interview that she’s been sidetracked this year by other issues but promised she’d give the legislation her attention soon. “I’ll take a look at it. I know there’s been a lot of talk about that over the years. There might be some of those reports that could be [released]. Others maybe not,” she said. — 10/29/2015, quoted in Politico.

Roy Blunt, Chair, Senate Rules Committee
“I’ve never understood why those couldn’t be available to the public and I’m interested in looking at that,” said Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., who was handed the gavel on the Senate Rules panel in January, and also serves as chairman of the Joint Committee on the Library. — 7/14/2015, quoted in Roll Call.

Gregg Harper, Vice Chair, Joint Committee on the Library “You could argue that both ways, and so I want to make sure that we give that a proper study, so we haven’t made a 100 percent decision on what works best,” Harper said. “You want to make sure they can speak openly and we can get the information we need. Now, do you want to release that to the public? That’s something that we’re still trying to work through.” — 7/14/2015, quoted in Roll Call.

— Written by Daniel Schuman

House to Address Spending Improprieties and Improve Reporting

Tomorrow, the Committee on House Administration will hold a markup on a resolution that governs member spending. As Politico explains, the “sweeping changes” to how Members of Congress spend money was prompted by stories on former Rep. Aaron Schock (R-IL), who reportedly misspent public money redecorating his office, filing inappropriate requests for travel reimbursements, and other misdeeds. Shock is under federal investigation.

The House formed a special task force, composed of Reps. Rodney Davis (R-IL) and Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), to tighten up reporting and disclosure rules. Demand Progress and representatives from other organizations were consulted by the task force as it considered recommendations.

If enacted, the resolution would:


  • Allow private/charter flights only when no commercial is alternative.
  • Prohibit private/charter flights between D.C. and anywhere else, without prior written authorization.
  • Permit private/charter flights between non-D.C. locations, but require written approval if the cost for the entire itinerary exceeds $7,500.
  • Set maximum reimbursement rates for privately-owned and privately-leased vehicles. Limit reimbursement to vehicles owned by the Member or employee.


  • Require prior written approval for decorating expenses or furniture that exceeds $5,000 per item.

Reporting and Compliance

  • Instruct CAO to submit a proposal by Nov. 21 to publish House expenditure reports as digital spreadsheets, replacing the current PDF scan of tabular data. (This is a big deal for watchdogs!)
  • Instruct CAO to submit a proposal to retire “travel subsistence” as a catch-all reporting code, hopefully to be replaced with finer-grained reporting.
  • Require CAO to report on its internal controls and training regarding voucher reimbursements by Nov. 21.

We are particularly excited that the Committee will consider — and hopefully approve — the publication of House Expenditure Reports in an electronic format. Instead of publishing hundreds of pages of tables as a giant PDF, the House would now publish that information as a digital spreadsheet. (Of course, the House’s decision a few years back to publish the information online at all, even as a PDF, was a step forward.) This will allow watchdogs and others to easily review and analyze spending information.

We are still digesting the other proposals, but they are a welcome improvement. We commend the hard work of Reps. Davis and Lofgren and look forward to tomorrow’s meeting.

— Written by Daniel Schuman

Intelligence Oversight and the Fight Over the Speaker

Credit: Clerk of the House of Representatives

It isn’t sexy, but you have to commend House Republicans for their focus on congressional process, particularly in the negotiations surrounding the selection of a new Speaker of the House of Representatives. Unlike House Democrats and both parties in the Senate, House Republicans publish their internal rules. And, unlike House Democrats, whose leadership, unfortunately, appears unlikely to consider changes to their rules — there is a serious conversation about “regular order” taking place on the majority side of the aisle.

Rules matter. A lot. As Rep. John Dingell famously said,

I’ll let you write the substance. You let me write the procedure, and I‘ll screw you every time.

He’s great on Twitter, too.

I’m a rules nerd. For the last six years, I have published suggestions on how the House and Senate should change their rules. Today I’m going to focus on how a small change to the Republican Conference Rules would effect congressional oversight, national security, and civil liberties. (The “Republican Conference” is the official grouping of congressional Republicans.)

Republican Conference rules govern which Republicans may serve on a particular committee. Personnel choices are policy choices, as who you put on a committee determines what it does. The process for choosing members and leadership is different for standing committees and select committees.

Standing committee members are nominated by a special committee, known as the Steering Committee; select committee members are nominated by the Speaker alone. In both instances, the members of the Republican Conference could decline to approve the nominations, but that is unlikely. Almost every committee is a standing committee, except for the Intelligence Committee and the Benghazi Committee, which are select committees.

In practice, what this means is the Speaker picks who serves on — and leads — the Intelligence Committee. By comparison, members of the Republican Conference have some influence over the composition of other committees, through the Steering Committee, although even in those circumstances the Speaker has outsized influence.

Consequently, the Intelligence Committee most closely reflects the views of the Speaker when compared to other committees. There is no compelling reason for the Speaker to play this role and many reasons why the Speaker should not. Many committees deal with secrets, including the Armed Services and Appropriations Committees. Select committees usually are temporary, but the House Intelligence Committee has existed since the 1970s. And the House Intelligence Committee is not functioning as it should.

While it would not solve all the problems with intelligence oversight, nomination of members of the House Intelligence Committee should be handled in the same way as members of other committees, to better reflect the diverse perspectives and competencies of the whole House. To do this, House Republican Conference rule 12(a) could be amended to read as follows:

The Republican Steering Committee shall recommend to the Republican Conference the Republican Members of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and the standing committees of the House of Representatives, except as otherwise provided in this rule.

The Rules of the House of Representatives place a few limitations on the pool of candidates. (See page 14, subsection x.) But there’s no reason why this cannot be handled by the Steering Committee or through some other process.

The House of Representatives cannot afford to fail in its responsibilities to oversee the intelligence community. Members of the House of Representatives should take responsibility for oversight into their own hands by making sure the House Intelligence Committee reflects their priorities and the will of the House.

— Written by Daniel Schuman

Capitol Hill Chat: Public Access to CRS Reports

Yesterday, the Congressional Transparency Caucus announced it will host a panel discussion on public access to Congressional Research Service reports. The non-confidential reports explain current policy matters before Congress in a thoughtful, comprehensive way, but the reports are not systematically publicly available. The panel is set for Thursday, October 22, at 11 a.m. in room 2103 of the Rayburn House Office Building. It will be live-streamed here.

RSVP for the panel discussion here }

Reps. Lance (R-NJ) and Quigley (D-IL), who are hosting the conversation, have introduced legislation to publish all non-confidential reports online. As part of a coalition of 40 organizations, we have endorsed online access to the reports, as have many others, including the New York Times in a recent editorial.

Click here to ask your rep. to support public access }

In addition to opening remarks by Reps. Lance and Quigley, former Rep. Chris Shays (R-CT), who started pushing for public access in the late 1990s, will participate on the panel, as will former counsel for the House of Representatives Stan Brand.

Watch the live stream here }

Here is a full list of the panelists:

  • The Honorable Chris Shays (R-CT) — Rep. Shays represented the fourth congressional district in Connecticut from 1987–2008. A member of the Government Reform, Financial Services, and Budget and Homeland Security Committees, Rep. Shays is well-known for his government reform efforts. In 2009, he co-chaired the Commission on War-Time Contracting.
  • Prue Adler — Ms. Adler is the associate executive director of the Association of Research Libraries, with a focus on information politics, intellectual property rights, telecommunications, and issues relating to access to government information. Prior to joining ARL in 1989, she was assistant project director for the Communications and Information Technologies Program in the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment.
  • Stan Brand — Mr. Brand is senior counsel with the law firm Akin Gump. His practice emphasizes defending the rights of witnesses involved in government investigations. From 1976–1983, Mr. Brand was general counsel to the U.S. House of Representatives and was the House’s chief legal officer responsible for representing the House, its members, officers, and employees in connection with legal procedures and litigation arising from the conduct of their official activities. He is a Distinguished Fellow in Law and Government at Penn State Dickinson School of Law
  • Kevin Kosar — Dr. Kosar is a senior fellow and governance project director with the R Street Institute, a free-market think tank with a pragmatic approach to public policy challenges. For 11 years, he was an analyst and manager at the Congressional Research Service. In January, he wrote an article in the Washington Monthly entitled “Why I Quit the Congressional Research Service.”
  • Daniel Schuman, moderator — Mr. Schuman is the policy director at Demand Progress and co-founder of the Congressional Data Coalition. He has written extensively on congressional capacity to perform its duties. In addition to serving as director of the Advisory Committee on Transparency while at the Sunlight Foundation, he was a legislative attorney with the Congressional Research Service.

Obama, Earmarks, and Transparency

Photo credit: ervins_strauhmanis

Demand Progress and Cause of Action filed a petition urging the government to enforce a Bush-era executive order to make earmarks transparent. While the House and the Senate recently prohibited the insertion of earmarks — directed spending toward a particular project — into legislative documents, members of Congress, often at the behest of special pleaders, use letters, emails, phone calls, and personal visits to pressure agency staff to make funding decisions in favor of favorite businesses or pet projects.

The executive order does not prohibit these communications, but it would drag them into the daylight. An investigation by Cause of Action, described in the petition, shows how the Obama administration allowed the order to fall into desuetude. We believe spending decisions should be made on the merits and in the sunshine.

{ Read the petition }

The executive order, should the administration choose to issue regulations through the Office of Management and Budget to enforce it, is simple. It requires departments and agencies to make available to the public all written and oral communications concerning earmarks, and all discretionary funds when the agency is pressured to give favorable treatment to an entity. It also affirms that agencies may not allocate discretionary funds in response to congressional requests unless the determination is made on merit and the request is publicly-available.

This falls in line with the administration’s early ethics-related efforts. The economic stimulus and financial bailout both contained novel provisions that added clever, new approaches to curbing undue influence. Indeed, the administration made efforts to revive the executive order, only to eventually desist.

We believe that earmark requests, no matter the form, should be transparent to the public.That means the public should see who made the request, the nature of the request, and the reasoning behind it. This sunshine should deter inappropriate special pleading and close a significant loophole whereby special interests exert undue influence.

A final note. There are a few prominent people who seem to long for the era of secret earmarks, backroom deals, and so on. They believe that a little honest graft and backroom smoke is what kept the political system running. This is nonsense. I challenge anyone to read this interview with Lyndon Johnson’s bag man, Bobby Baker, conducted by the Senate historian, and remain enamored with yesteryear trading of sex for votes, literal buying of votes with bags of unmarked bills distributed on the Senate floor, and the like.

The truth is there is plenty of room for members of Congress to have quiet conversations. There are plenty of opportunities for members of Congress to trade favors and work things out. But some activities should be beyond the pale, and others should be visible to the American people. We have a right to see how, and why, the government spends our tax dollars. This executive order will help do that.

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— Written by Daniel Schuman

Publish the Digitized Congressional Record

GPO and the Library of Congress Should Collaborate with the Public

Photo credit: Erin KInney

At a meeting in April, the Government Publishing Office announced its collaboration with the Library of Congress to digitize all bound volumes of the Congressional Record from 1873–1998. The Congressional Record is the official record of the proceedings and debates of the United States Congress.

The digitization project is pursuant to a 2010 Joint Committee on Printing letter. GPO explained at the April meeting that it had digitized all of the volumes and the “[Library Services and Content Management business unit] was in the acquisitions process for the next step of reviewing the digital content and creating descriptive metadata.”

GPO and the Library should release the digitized volumes now. Even without metadata, the Congressional Record could be searched and put to other uses. Other digitization projects concerning documents held by the Library have taken years while descriptive metadata was created. By contrast, a volunteer-led effort to create descriptive metadata for the Statutes of Large took a matter of months and cost the government nothing.

The National Archives has undertaken similar kinds of projects to what I am proposing. The Archive’s Innovation Hub provides a space for the public to transcribe documents, tag documents, and scan documents and holdings. More information is available at the Citizen Archivist Dashboard.

It is possible the Library/GPO could view this as violating a rule against the public giving gifts to the agency. However, so long as the information is shared publicly with everyone — which is the point of metadata — it would not be a gift to anyone. Similar logic likely underpins the House’s recent decision on the use of Open Source, the White House’s Open Data policy, and the Archive’s collaborative efforts with the public.

I am sure there are benefits to an internal, government-only process … but why hold up public access? We can do both. A collaborative effort around metadata would provide an opportunity for GPO and the Library to engage with the public and to work to make important public documents publicly available. At a minimum, releasing the documents to the public would allow the everyone to collaborate on this effort outside of any limitations on the Library or GPO, perhaps to the immense public benefit of everyone.

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— Written by Daniel Schuman