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Congressional Research Service Documents — Free or Fee?
by
Posted On July 11, 2005
The Congressional Research Service (CRS; http://www.loc.gov/crsinfo), a part of the Library of Congress, is Congress' reference desk and research arm. With an annual budget of approximately $96 million and a staff of 700, CRS produces solid, objective, well-researched material covering the current legislative agenda as well as reports written in response to requests from members of Congress. Topics cover a wide array of issues—almost anything of interest to policymakers. However, CRS does not release any of its reports directly to the public. Instead it leaves that option to members of Congress as part of their services to their constituencies. Because American taxpayers fund the studies, however, the reports—if you can find them—are public domain. Free Internet services offering copies of CRS reports have begun to emerge, but the free offerings, supplied by sources such as the new Open CRS (http://www.opencrs.com), still cannot match the comprehensiveness of some fee-based services, such as Penny Hill Press' collection, which is available in full text through GalleryWatch.com.

Though obliged by law to distribute their work exclusively and confidentially to Congress alone, CRS reports can surface. For example, committees may release selected studies bearing the committee's "brandname" through the Government Printing Office. These documents too would fall in public domain.

Begun in 1914 as the Legislative Reference Service in the Library of Congress and renamed as the Congressional Research Service in 1970, CRS "works exclusively and directly for Members of Congress, their Committees and staff on a confidential, nonpartisan basis." Its six research divisions encompass American Law; Domestic Social Policy; Foreign Affairs, Defense and Trade; Government and Finance; Knowledge Services Group; and Resources, Science and Industry. In 2003, it produced 846 new reports, updated or revised 4,789, and prepared 2,214 "custom writings."

Reports cover a wide range of formats: policy analyses, economic studies, statistical reviews, legal analyses, historical studies, chronologies, and short fact sheets. Upon request, the reports may circulate through Congress, but memoranda and such go only to the Congressional requester, who controls further distribution. CRS updates the reports to keep them current, especially as to legislative action, and discards them when they are no longer relevant or needed. In the course of a year, 4,000-5,000 reports may remain active. CRS also produces Issue Briefs, which are concise (16 pages or less), continually updated summaries of major legislative issues before Congress.

Open CRS tracks the appearance of more than 8,400 CRS studies on the Web and provides central indexing and links to them. The site links to six political research centers: the National Council on Science and the Environment, the Federation of American Scientists, the Thurgood Marshall Law Library at the University of Maryland School of Law, the IP Mall at Franklin Pierce Law Center, the National Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism, and the Center for Democracy and Technology. (The last group is the parent organization for Open CRS.)

Open CRS is a project of the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT; http://www.cdt.org), a "non-profit, non-partisan public interest organization dedicated to developing and implementing public policies to protect and advance civil liberties and democratic values on the Internet." CDT focuses on policy issues facing the Internet, including national security and privacy, digital copyright protection, the free flow of information, consumer protection, and democratic processes.

Not only does Open CRS provide a central clearinghouse for studies already out on the Web, it also lobbies Congress to open access to all CRS Reports. Its "grass-roots" movement to open up content encourages users of the service to request reports from their representatives and to then pass them on to Open CRS. Exhorting users, it calls on them to "TAKE ACTION!" and request a PDF copy of reports from members of Congress and then to copy the files to the Open CRS Web site. Such submissions are made anonymously. Open CRS reviews the document, a process that takes 1-2 business days, before posting it. It can also make arrangements to import groups of documents in bulk. The pages that urge user action even specify which reports CRS users should request from Congress. Users of the site can search and browse reports; they can also set up RSS feeds for reports from all of the individual featured collection sites and from the overall service.

Open CRS is not the only Net service tracking CRS content. The Government Documents Department at the University of North Texas Libraries has also launched a service that allows searching and browsing of CRS reports (http://digital.library.unt.edu/govdocs/crs). It downloads reports that have appeared on open Web sites dating back to 1990 and makes them searchable by keyword, title, author, subject, and report number; the reports are browseable by subject. The collection includes alternate versions of documents at different stages of revision. The CDT has begun negotiating access to the collection.

The 2 ACT service (http://2act.org) tracks CRS reports that have already appeared on Web sites in a variety of formats (PDF, DOC, HTML, or image-scanned). It currently reaches some 1,000 documents, which can be searched by keyword or phrase. If the report is available on the Web, the link will connect to it. The 2 ACT organization works in support of zFacts (http://zFacts.com), a collaborative, Web-based collection of "progressive" background information for the press.

The 2 ACT service also links to a list of reports available from PennyHill.com Press (http://www.pennyhill.com) through GalleryWatch. (Reports cost $29.95 each.) Penny Hill Press, a small publisher dedicated to acquiring CRS documents, claims to have all CRS documents issued since 1995, as well as most documents issued during 1993 and 1994 and some issued prior to 1993. The collection is updated weekly.

When challenged as to the claims of comprehensiveness for such "un-distributed" documents, Walter Seager, president and owner of Penny Hill Press, assured me that it has all the numbered reports, Issue Briefs, and short reports. In fact, he challenged me to run the numbers. Two major numbering systems that CRS assigns to its documents are RS (short report) and RL (long report). Seager says there are no gaps in the consecutive numbering back to 1998 (and even further when CRS used a different numbering system). Penny Hill even has some memoranda, although Seager makes no claims of comprehensiveness for those private reports to members of Congress. Under an arrangement with GalleryWatch, the all-online legislative tracking service, Penny Hill supplies all its CRS reports in full text from 1999 forward. It will shortly add the reports from 1998 and then earlier, as Seager gets the time to arrange the scanning.

Penny Hill charges $29.95 for long reports and $19.95 for shorter reports. (Students pay $19.95/$12.95.) Any additional report ordered at the same time comes at half price. Penny Hill also produces a monthly newsletter that runs 40-50 pages and carries abstracts of all the CRS documents. Subscribers pay $299 for the newsletter, but they get a discount price on CRS documents ($7.95 apiece or $5.95 if part of a standing order). Subscriptions for online access to the entire collection cost $3,495. Penny Hill offered a DVD-ROM subscription version with quarterly updates at the same price, but interest was so low, according to Seager, that it now relies completely on Internet subscriptions.

And what about the public domain status of the documents? Seager said that GalleryWatch already has license provisions with subscribers that block use of the reports outside a subscriber's organization. Penny Hill plans to have a similar arrangement in place. Seager agreed that public domain has its place. "It's a good idea. The taxpayers pay for the documents," said Seager, "and they should be freely available. But as long as I have to work this hard to get them, I have to get paid."


Barbara Quint is senior editor of Online Searcher, co-editor of The Information Advisor’s Guide to Internet Research, and a columnist for Information Today.

Email Barbara Quint

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