While it might seem at times that congressional debate is seat-of-the-pants silliness, much of what informs legislation is the product of empirical research and in-depth analysis. Congress, in essence, has its own think tank called the Congressional Research Service that produces valuable nonpartisan reports.
However, the public does not have easy, unfettered access to this information, so it is hamstrung in trying to separate the wheat of objective analysis from the chaff of subjective spin. Under current law, CRS reports are not considered public information. Members of Congress and their staffs can access the reports and then choose to make them public – or not – if the public requests them.
Many of the reports have been leaked, and some public interest groups collect them and make them available. Some for-profit entities sell them. That’s right – taxpayers come up with the $100 million a year to finance CRS and its reports, which are then sold back to them, if leaked.
A number of public interest and library groups have signed on to an effort to make this information freely available to the public online. The current CRS administrator, Daniel Mullohan, wants to maintain the secrecy of the reports, but he is resigning soon. So the groups have sent a letter to the director of the Library of Congress, which oversees CRS, to appoint a replacement who will work with Congress on greater transparency.
Mullohan has maintained that direct public access would hamper the quality of the work. He fears that analysts might approach their work differently if they know the audience is broadened beyond members of Congress. He also lumps confidential memos with the general reports and worries that the service would become the subject of subpoenas and other legal actions.
But there is no reason that a director who sees the value in open government could not fashion a compromise that would free the reports and maintain their quality while protecting confidential correspondence. Besides, as already noted, the reports are broadly disseminated in indirect ways. CRS has yet to demonstrate that this has created a problem.
Other objections are familiar ones when it comes to efforts to shield government records.
CRS says it would not be able to control how the information is used. That is, the media might mischaracterize or misquote the information. That’s a risk with all public information. The remedy of keeping it secret is unacceptable in an open society. The status quo allows politicians to cherry-pick or spin the information without an easy way to check out their versions.
CRS fears it could get overwhelmed with requests. That’s possible, but let’s see first. If this comes to pass, Congress can find a solution without shutting off the information.
We fail to see how a broad dissemination of nonpartisan information would be a bad development for democracy. Congress ought to make nonconfidential, nonclassified CRS reports readily available to the public that has already paid for them.