Congress acts to put more reports online

Congress acts to put more reports online

In response to public demand, bill would require Web access to Congressional Research Service files

By Christopher J. Dorobek

GCN Staff

Congressional Research Service reports are the most wanted government documents that are not available online, according to a survey by two Washington public interest groups.

'CRS uses taxpayer dollars to produce reports on public-policy issues ranging from foreign affairs to agriculture to health care,' according to a report on the survey done by the Center for Democracy and Technology and OMB Watch.

The CRS reports are available online, but only to lawmakers via a congressional intranet. The public can order a paper copy from their congressional representative by mail. But taxpayers often are not aware that a report exists, CDT officials said.

Lobbyist reports too

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has introduced the Congressional Openness Act, S 393, which would require that the public records of Congress be accessible electronically. The bill would also provide electronic access to lobbyist reports and gift disclosure forms.

The bill would direct CRS to create a report database and make the reports available to the public within 30 days of their submission to lawmakers. Introduced in February, the bill has not made it out of the Senate Rules and Administration Committee.

'The American public will pay $67.1 million to fund CRS' operations for fiscal year 1999. They should be allowed to see that their money is being well spent on material that is neither confidential nor classified,' McCain said when he sponsored the bill.

McCain said the reports are also available through what he called a black market of private vendors who charge as much as $49 a report.

'It is not fair for the American people to have to pay a third party for out-of-date products for which they have already footed the bill,' he said.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), a co-sponsor of the bill, said this CRS information is theoretically available in the Senate Office of Public Records at the Hart Senate Office Building.

'As a practical matter, these public records are accessible only to those inside the Beltway,' Leahy said on the Senate floor when the bill was introduced.

Ari Schwartz, policy analyst for the Center for Democracy and Technology, said CRS officials have told lawmakers it would be too expensive to provide the reports online, potentially spiking costs by as much as 10 percent.

The increase would come from additional requests for reports as well as the cost of maintaining the site and posting the documents, CRS officials reported.

The General Accounting Office, however, which has a role similar to CRS but posts its reports, has found that Internet access has not increased costs, Schwartz said.

'A lot more people are seeing them,' he said.

Watchdogs' list

The IRS and Government Printing Office have come to similar conclusions and are putting much of their public information online.

The top 10 government documents taxpayers want to see online

1. ' Congressional Research Service

2. ' Supreme Court opinions and

3. ' State's Daily Briefing Book

4. ' EPA's Pesticide Safety Database

5. ' The full text of congressional

6. ' Justice's court briefs

7. ' Congressional votes

8. ' Interior's endangered species
recovery plans

9. ' PTO's Official Gazette of

10. ' Circuit court rulings and briefs

The most-wanted document list is based on a survey of 165 taxpayers by the two watchdog organizations. The respondents said other documents they would like to be able to access online are Supreme Court opinions and briefs. That information is only available on private sites, such as the one maintained by Cornell University.

'The Supreme Court of Mongolia has its own official Web site, but the U.S. Supreme Court doesn't. Instead, the court refers people to one or more of 10 different unofficial Web sites which publish various subsets of opinions, updated with varying frequency,' the survey report said.

The number of requests for Supreme Court documents came as a surprise, Schwartz said, especially considering that there has been no public explanation of why the court does not have a Web site.

Justice Clarence Thomas testified recently before Congress that the court was planning to set up a Web site, but there has been no further official comment, he said.


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