- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 19, 2016

A guerrilla group of open-records activists struck a major blow for sunshine in government Wednesday when it posted more than 8,200 reports from the Congressional Research Service, Capitol Hill’s nonpartisan think tank whose research is usually closely guarded.

Demand Progress posted the reports at EveryCRSReport.com, giving the public an unprecedented look at the kinds of information accessible to lawmakers on nearly every subject that comes before Congress.

The reports have been available to lawmakers and thousands of staffers on Capitol Hill with access to the internal computer network, but the CRS balked at requests to broaden access, saying its mission was to report to Congress, not to the public.

“For more than 20 years, the public has clamored for Congress to systematically release CRS reports to the public,” said Daniel Schuman, a former CRS attorney who is now policy director at Demand Progress and who spearheaded the effort. “Congress must do better, and this new website points the way forward.”

He said his group has posted every publicly available report and redacted only the names, phone numbers and email addresses of the analysts who wrote them. The group also added a statement about copyrights of information in the documents, addressing one of the concerns the CRS had offered.

Congress has jealously guarded its reports, with lawmakers even voting down efforts to have CRS itself make the documents readily available.

But that has never been a unanimous stance, and some lawmakers have fought for more access.

Stymied by their colleagues, two members of Congress — one Democrat and one Republican, whom the group did not name — are providing access to the reports to Demand Progress.

They include 723 reports on constitutional issues, 211 reports on immigration policy, 592 on health policy, 18 on Indian affairs and more than 1,500 reports on Congress’ spending powers and the programs it chooses to fund. Each of those reports is publicly available to all Capitol Hill staffers on the network.

The CRS also provides legal advice and specific confidential memos in answer to lawmakers’ requests. Those are not available because they are not part of the public network on Capitol Hill.

The CRS did not respond to messages seeking comment, but in the past it has said that more public exposure could change the agency’s mission, leading the public to try to ask questions directly of analysts and analysts perhaps writing their reports with a broader audience in mind.

Open-government advocates said that rang hollow because many of the reports had already been posted, though in piecemeal fashion.

Several members of Congress praised Demand Progress for breaking the stranglehold.

“These reports are paid for by taxpayer funds; the taxpayers should be able to read them,” said Rep. Leonard Lance, a New Jersey Republican who co-sponsored the Equal Access to Congressional Research Service Reports Act.

Julie Todaro, president of the American Library Association, said the information was a boon for researchers and entrepreneurs and should be public. She said Congress should still pass legislation to guarantee access to the reports through an official online portal.

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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