On March 3, 2016, bipartisan bills were introduced in both houses of Congress (S 2639 and HR 4702) that authorize the U.S. Government Publishing Office (GPO) to make reports prepared for Congress freely available to the public. Libraries, educators, and groups advocating for transparency in government support the legislation.
An agency within the Library of Congress, the Congressional Research Service (CRS) employs more than 400 policy analysts, attorneys, and information professionals across a variety of disciplines in five research divisions: American Law; Domestic Social Policy; Foreign Affairs, Defense and Trade; Government and Finance; and Resources, Science and Industry. “In a fast-paced, ever-changing environment, CRS provides Congress with the vital analytical support it needs to address the most complex public policy issues facing the nation. Its work incorporates program and legislative expertise, quantitative methodologies and legal and economic analysis,” its website states.
The Public Availability of CRS Reports
CRS provides policy and legal analysis to Congress, and its reports remain the province of congressional members and their staff. They are released to the public mainly when referred to during hearings. A new website, CRSReports.com, launched in December 2015, purports to be the “largest free and public collection of Congressional Research Service reports.” The earliest report in the repository is from 1989.
According to The Washington Post, archivist Antoine McGrath is working with “two software programmers who have written a code that scans about 100 sites for metadata in CRS studies.” The fruits of their labor are made available to the public in this new web-based repository. All information provided by CRSReports.com can be accessed for free—no sign-up or registration required. On Twitter, @CRSReportsLib regularly posts reports.
This is not the first attempt to make CRS reports available to the public. In 2005, the Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT) created Open CRS to provide “citizens access to reports already in the public domain and [it] encourages Congress to provide public access to all CRS Reports.” The site ceased operation in 2014, but has been archived. (Reports posted on it can be retrieved by searching site:assets.opencrs.com.)
The Feb. 22, 2013, memorandum from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, “Increasing Access to the Results of Federally Funded Scientific Research,” outlines steps federal agencies must take to give the public access to the products of research conducted using taxpayer money, primarily in the form of grant funding. Similar steps were initiated on Capitol Hill with respect to CRS reports.
In 2007, Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) sponsored a resolution (S Res 401) directing the sergeant at arms of the Senate to “make publicly available through a centralized electronic system the following CRS-produced information: (1) Issue Briefs; (2) Reports that are available to Members of Congress through the CRS website; and (3) Authorization of Appropriations and Appropriations Products.”
In 2015, representatives Leonard Lance (R-N.J.) and Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) introduced H Res 34, which directs “the Clerk of the House of Representatives, in consultation with the Director of the Congressional Research Service (CRS), to establish and maintain a centralized, searchable, bulk downloadable, electronic database consisting of: (1) CRS Issue Briefs, Reports, Authorization of Appropriations Products and Appropriations Products, and other materials intended or available for general congressional distribution through the CRS website; and (2) an index of such information.” (A video of the Oct. 22, 2015, Transparency Caucus Briefing concerning public access to the reports, hosted by Lance and Quigley, is available on YouTube.)
In October 2015, a group of CRS retirees and other former employees wrote a letter asking for “timely, comprehensive free public access to CRS reports. … Insiders with relationships to congressional staff can easily obtain the reports, and well-resourced groups pay for access from third-party subscription services. Members of the public, however, can freely access only a subset of CRS reports, usually via third parties.” The letter goes on to state, “A Google search returned over 27,000 products including 4,260 hosted on .gov domains, but there is no way to know if those documents are up to date, whether the search is comprehensive, or when the documents might disappear from view.” Supporting this effort are 12 conservative groups “urging Congress to make CRS reports available to the public.” (Kevin Kosar, senior fellow and governance project director with the R Street Institute, joined Americans for Tax Reform president Grover Norquist during a podcast to discuss the importance of releasing the reports.)
Availability in Libraries
Libraries that use LexisNexis and ProQuest may have access to CRS reports through specific subscriptions. However, the number of reports in each system, and their availability as full text, is very much based on the luck of the draw. These vendors have been actively searching to identify reports as they are included in congressional hearings and appended to committee reports, creating basic bibliographic records for as many as possible and enhancing those records through indexing to make them more discoverable. Neither vendor makes any claim to having a comprehensive collection of reports.