Congress opens the books, puts internal research online

September 18, 2018

Congress’ treasure trove of internal reports written by the authoritative research staff at the Library of Congress went online Tuesday, giving average Americans access to the same information their lawmakers see on everything from border security to unemployment insurance to building and naming Navy ships.

The reports, available at crsreports.congress.gov, had been jealously guarded for years by some on Capitol Hill who argued the Congressional Research Service’s work was intended only for lawmakers’ eyes and feared making it public could skew what the analysts were doing.

But after years of perseverance transparency advocates won the fight, writing language into the massive 2018 spending bill approved earlier this year to demand CRS publicly post its work, amounting to more than 3,000 reports a year.

“The era of secrecy is over and CRS reports are now coming online for all to read,” said Rep. Leonard Lance, New Jersey Republican, who said the move is “a win for good governance.”

The website’s front page right now amounts to a keyword search box, meaning people need to know the general subject they’re interested in. There is no obvious way to browse reports functionality that is available to staffers inside the Capitol.

Carla Hayden, the librarian of Congress, said the system was “designed to be as user friendly as possible.”

“In keeping with our desire to engage users with the library and its materials, we are happy to see these reports put to the widest use possible,” she said.

The reports posted online are mostly the same as the ones members of Congress can see though the email addresses and phone numbers for the CRS analysts have been stripped from the public versions.

The new site also appears to be up to date: Monday’s reports on the handling of illegal immigrant children, U.S. policy toward Afghanistan and federal grants to local schools were all online as of Tuesday morning.

But other CRS documents available on computers inside Capitol Hill, including legal memos, were not available through the public website’s keyword search.

Some CRS reports amount to updates on where bills stand in the legislative process, or give history and background to long-standing government policies. Some reports, though, include groundbreaking analysis or legal conclusions that are newsworthy.

The reports have long been a hot commodity inside Washington, where some lawmakers would share them with interest groups or lobbyists. Lawmakers said a small cottage industry built up with people who had access to reports selling them.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, Vermont Democrat and a staunch advocate for public release, said the new system puts the public on even footing.

“I have long championed transparency and an open government, and I am glad that the American people will finally have the same access to these taxpayer-funded reports that lobbyists and insiders enjoy,” he said. “Open access to information is vital to a functioning democracy, and this rollout is long overdue.”

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