Nearly a hundred years ago the Library of Congress established an exclusive service for Members of the House of Representatives and United States Senators. The Congressional Research Service (CRS) is a publicly funded arm of the Library of Congress, a think-tank providing non-partisan research reports on any subject requested by Congressional offices or committee staff. CRS even sends employees to meet with individual Members of Congress and their staffs and brief them on whatever research has been done on their specific topic.
Much of this research is conducted to inform Members about issues on which legislation is pending or may soon be introduced. However, the process also may be reversed. Sometimes a Senator or Representative knows that a certain issue is important to his or her State or District and needs information to bolster an argument. Having a service like CRS at its fingertips is just one of the many Congressional perks of office. However, many argue that a service of this caliber when paid for by the public also should be accessible to the public. The information available in these reports could be a valuable tool for everyone, especially those little people we call taxpayers who are footing the bill for this agency yet do not have access to its services.
In every Congress since the late 1990s bipartisan legislation has been introduced in the House and/or Senate that would make CRS reports publicly available. The Library of Congress and CRS consistently have argued against the idea. Their concerns have ranged from the possibility that classified material might be shared to questions of copyright law to the loss of the “special” relationship that is traditional between Members of Congress and their constituents who frequently request CRS reports as a
Congressional service. Simply put, CRS believes that Members of Congress and members of the public are not equal. However, as in many other areas of our society today, the Internet has made the majority, if not all, of their arguments moot.
It has been a number of years since Congress mandated that each Federal agency have its own website, thus allowing the public to obtain information and conduct business online. Every Member of Congress now has his or her own website and it sometimes seems to me and members of my generation as if, to paraphrase an old adage, all God’s children now have websites — or at least they use the Internet. A comprehensive study done in 2006 by comScore Networks [sic] Networks in Reston, Virginia calculated that over 152,000,000 people regularly use the Internet in the United States, with the rest of the world not far behind. (China and other Asian countries also are making great strides in this area.)
Among the many things it has done, the Internet has made a vast amount of knowledge on nearly every topic available within seconds. Just the click of a mouse or the touch of a key and there is your information. And nearly all of it is free! Need to help a child with a book report on Southeast Asia? Google it. How about photographs of some rare species of fish or the history of an organization or a complete list of the works of Shakespeare? Projects that used to take days to research in an actual library may now take only a couple of hours on a home computer. Thus arguments about “special” relationships between Members and constituents make little sense in the Internet age. Nor does paying nearly $4,000 per year for the privilege of accessing the complete library, as one private company called Gallery Watch has managed to do for several years without being questioned about its sources. (When asked how it has access to so many reports which have not been previously made public, Gallery Watch had no comment.) The proliferation of free information online has only strengthened the argument that CRS also should offer free information.
And what of security concerns? The great majority of the several thousand reports requested by Congress per year from CRS do not deal with anything even remotely classified. The proof of this is demonstrated by the number and type of websites that are currently posting CRS reports legally. These include the State Department, which posts CRS reports on foreign issues, the University of Maryland School of Law, the Federation of American Scientists, and the National Council for Science and the Environment. The University of North Texas has even received a grant sponsored by several foundations and the American Library Association to set up a permanent online registry for CRS reports. Last, though hardly least, there is a website called Open CRS, a project of the Center for Democracy and Technology, which believes it is a civil liberties and free speech issue to post any and all reports it can obtain on its website.
Unfortunately, none of these repositories has a complete selection available and there is (according to CRS) no master list kept of all the reports CRS has produced over the years. It seems to me that it is time to end the foolishness and just make the CRS website available to the general public. Currently, one must log in and be a member of a Congressional staff. Obviously, CRS could exclude any reports on issues sensitive to national security and the like. But why should a citizen be penalized because he has no access to a Congressional office or cannot afford to pay $4,000 a year to access reports for which his taxes paid? As with so many things in Washington these days one must ask where is common sense when we need it?