My Testimony on Why CRS Reports Should be Publicly Available

(These is a prepared version of oral testimony)

Chairman Yoder, Ranking Member Ryan, and members of the Committee, thank you providing this opportunity for public testimony. This is such an important tradition, and I commend you for resuming it.

My name is Daniel Schuman, and I am the Policy Director for Demand Progress, a grassroots organization with 2 million members focused on building a modern democracy.

Today I am representing the position of 42 organizations from across the political spectrum. To express the breadth of our coalition, we have the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans for Tax Reform; CREW and Cause of Action; Demand Progress and Freedom Works; the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press; three of the major library associations; industry groups like the Data Coalition; and many more. We also include 25 former CRS employees, including myself, with a combined 570 years of experience. We are united in asking for expanded public access to Congressional Research Service reports.

Let me be clear about our request. We are asking only for the general-distribution reports that CRS makes available on its website to thousands of staff on Capitol hill. There are around 1,200 new reports each year, and another 2,400 updated reports.

We are not asking for confidential material. We are not asking for the 3,100 memoranda CRS provides annually in response to a congressional requests. We are not asking for the advice CRS provides to an individual member of Congress or a committee. There is no legislative proposal to release confidential advice, and we would not support such an effort.

As you know, Congress routinely releases individual reports to the public, whether as part of a committee print, as an individual member response to a constituent, or just as a matter of course. Many of these reports find their way online or into the hands of fee-for-access services, which can charge $20 a pop. There are tens of thousands of reports available in one form or another, including more than 4,000 on .gov domains.

Unfortunately, the status quo has created problems. How do you know that you’re looking at an authentic report? How do you know you have the most recent version — that you have the most up-to-date information? How do you know when CRS has released a new report? How can you know all the topics covered by CRS reports? Without an official, central publication source, the public simply cannot know.

It creates problems for many people. It creates problems for courts, who routinely cite the reports. It creates problems for journalists, who routinely report on them. It creates problems for advocates and think tanks, who rely on this information. It creates problems for students and academia, who rely on the reports for insight. It creates problems for historians, who face gaps in the historical record. And it creates problems for Congressional staff. Some research staff at legislative support agencies do not have access to the reports. Others, in personal and committee offices, surprisingly still search the internet for CRS reports. And member offices often must field questions from a confused public.

Over a two year span, major newspapers cited CRS reports 779 times. Over a decade, federal courts have cited CRS reports 130 times. Relying on an unofficial source for access doesn’t address any of these problems, and of course there’s no guarantee these websites will be around in the long term.

We should start with a presumption for open government, that information about the legislative process should be available to the public except where there’s a good reason to withhold it. Thanks in large part to this committee, Congress publishes lots of information about its activities. It publishes online bill text and status information, roll call vote data, committee reports, CBO and GAO reports, a phone directory for the House, video of hearings like this one, and so on. You can read CRS-like reports from the Law Library of Congress. It’s now routine for Congress to provide the public access to high quality work about policy matters being considered by Congress.

This opening up of Congress is the fruit of your labors and reflects policy choices that you’ve made. We thank you for it. As you know, the House has a general policy for the 115th Congress, adopted as part of the rules package, of broadening the availability of legislative documents in machine-readable formats. The Senate has had a policy since 1998 that encourages senators and committees to publish CRS reports on their websites. The House used to have a tool that members could add to their websites to automatically publish reports there, which was discontinued only because members did not know it existed.

Our written testimony, and that of our friends at the R Street Institute, the Data Coalition, and the American Association of Law Libraries, among others, express support for public access and address concerns about online publication that are sometimes raised. I welcome the opportunity to discuss any and all concerns. We have spent a lot of time working through them. To the extent they constitute serious questions, there are simple, straightforward fixes. And there’s bipartisan legislation, introduced last Congress by Reps. Lance and Quigley and Sens. McCain and Leahy, that fully resolve these issues to our satisfaction.

But let me touch on one issue that is not addressed elsewhere in testimony — the issue of cost. My organization is one of several that unofficially republishes CRS reports. As of yesterday, we had 8,671 reports on our site. It cost us a little more than $4,000 to build the site. On it, we redact the names, phone numbers, and email addresses of the report authors. We add disclaimer language to every report about possible copyright issues, and we explain that CRS reports are written for the Congress. We make it possible for readers to see how often a report is updated, and how much has changed since the last revision. You can even read the reports on your phone. We make them available for free, for everyone.

All of the code behind our website is available online for anyone to use at no cost. As we demonstrated with the site, it would be trivial from a technology perspective for Congress to publish the reports itself.

Our website shows one method by which this could be done. But our efforts are not a solution — it’s intended to be a guide for you. It’s intended to illustrate what is possible.

We hope that this committee will address our community’s longstanding request and ensure that CRS reports are published online for everyone to use.

I am looking forward to our conversation. Thank you for the opportunity to testify.

Read the written testimony. Watch the hearing. Read letters from a coalition of organizations and from 25 former CRS employees. Visit ourwebsite that republishes CRS reports.