New Bill Would Mandate Public Access to CRS Reports

A bill introduced in the House of Representatives last month would require that certain reports of the Congressional Research Service be made publicly available online.

The “Congressional Research Accessibility Act” (HR 2545) was introduced on May 24 by Rep. Christopher Shays (R-CT), along with Reps. Jay Inslee (D-WA) and David Price (D-NC). (The bill was flagged by the Coalition of Journalists for Open Government.)

The proposed legislation does not offer everything one might hope for. In particular, it would prohibit public access to CRS reports until 30 days after they are first published on the internal congressional web site.

This is good news for commercial vendors of CRS products, who have (unauthorized) near-real time access to CRS publications and could continue to exploit that advantage for financial gain. But the delay would significantly diminish the utility of many such publications for the general public.

For example, on June 5, CRS issued a report on “Extensively Drug-Resistant Tuberculosis (XDR-TB): Quarantine and Isolation” (pdf), which was then the subject of current news interest.

Under the proposed legislation, this report would not become widely available to the public for more than three weeks from now when, one may hope, it will be old news. (It was obtained independently and published previously by the Center for Democracy and Technology’s OpenCRS.)

Confidential reports and responses to individual member requests would understandably not be released under the new proposal unless the requester chose to release them. But neither would other CRS products that are not confidential if they do not fit the proposed definition of what is to be released.

That might be the case, for example, with this new non-report tabulation of “Overt U.S. Assistance to Pakistan, FY2001-FY2008″ (pdf), June 2007.

The congressional sponsors of the new bill, apparently fearing that CRS’ sharp analytical tools could be blunted by contact with their dull constituents, insist that CRS reports shall be published “in a manner that … does not permit the submission of comments from the public.”

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