Access to CRS materials is and is not a Net gain

The Congressional Research Service is a small part of the Library of Congress that
provides direct support to members of Congress. Members and their staffs rely on CRS for
every kind of assistance that you can imagine--and for some that you would never guess.
CRS specialists have expertise in a wide range of public policy issues. Of all the
congressional agencies, CRS has always been the best and most responsive.


Some public interest groups are currently pressuring Congress to put CRS written
materials on the Internet. This public access issue resurfaces every few years, and
Congress has steadfastly opposed releasing CRS publications. I don't know what will happen
this time. The availability of the Internet for wide distribution may make a difference.
It certainly solves some of the cost obstacles to public access.


The agency helps everyone: Republican and Democrat, novice and expert, stupid and
smart. Whichever way Congress zigs or zags, CRS staff members provide support, research,
ideas and background. Congress would do a much poorer job without CRS.


CRS analysts prepare short, regularly updated papers with overviews of hot issues.
These issue briefs allow harried legislative assistants to learn a new issue in an hour.
Longer CRS reports are another valuable product, providing in-depth studies on issues,
narrow or broad. Sometimes, CRS is Congress' only source of nonpartisan, even-handed
analysis.


If CRS publications are useful to Congress, wouldn't they also be useful to everyone
else? The answer is a resounding yes. But Congress has always kept CRS materials for
itself. Appropriations and oversight committees prohibit CRS from distributing directly to
the public.


Of course, the materials are available to anyone with a friend on Capitol Hill.
Congressional offices provide CRS reports to constituents, friends and lobbyists all the
time. The documents are not secret by any means, but they rarely become the center of
outside attention.


The case for public access is simple. CRS is a taxpayer-funded agency producing
unclassified, uncopyrighted information valuable to members and to voters. You don't need
a Ph.D. in political science to argue for access.


Before telling you what I think, I want to present the other side. CRS offers many
arguments why its work should not be made public. Only one has some real force behind it.
If CRS products are routinely disclosed, public and political pressures will make the
reports less valuable to Congress. Right now, CRS has a narrow audience. Even though its
reports find their way into public hands, CRS is still an obscure agency and rarely the
focus of public discussion or debate.


But if CRS reports automatically became public, this would change. Interest groups
would pressure members to order CRS papers on their issues. People would lobby for reports
more favorable to a particular point of view. CRS analysts would have to write with one
eye on public reaction. Reports would be blander, arguments would be less sharp, and the
products would be less helpful to Congress.


Moreover, some useful reports would not be requested at all because of concern over
public reaction. We can borrow a thought from physicist Werner Heisenberg. His uncertainty
principle says that you can't observe subatomic particles without having an effect on
their motion. The observations change the results. The same notion applies to CRS. If CRS
products are made public, they will change. Congress will have to invent new ways to get
candid advice away from the public eye.


So should CRS materials be put on the Web? I cautiously think so, because we have to
recognize the negative effects. When congressional sessions were televised, the debate
changed. Members no longer just speak to each other; they talk to the audience at home.
Much of what now happens on the floor of the House is a show solely for public
consumption. Debates are longer, shriller, more political, less productive. They rarely
affect how anyone votes.


Don't get me wrong. Openness has benefits, too. But the legislative process has changed
as a result, and we do not necessarily get better decisions or more truth in lawmaking. I
still support televising Congress and making CRS reports public. However, these are not
cost-free or consequence-free decisions.


I am willing to pay the price to make CRS publications more widely available, but it is
a surprisingly close call.


Robert Gellman, former chief counsel to the House Government Operations Subcommittee on
Information, Justice, Transportation and Agriculture, is a Washington privacy and
information policy consultant. His e-mail address is rgellman@cais.com.


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