For close observers of American government, Congressional Research Service (CRS) reports are indispensable, but by longstanding policy CRS does not release its reports to the public. CRS’s client is Congress, the reasoning goes, and in order to offer independent and unbiased advice CRS speaks (more or less) only to Congress, a position it claims is rooted in the Constitution’s speech or debate clause. This argument might hold water if other Congressional agencies like GAO, which are also presumably hamstrung by this same clause, did not publicly release their reports.
A decade ago, fellow bureauphile Nicole Harkin wrote on this issue for our friends at the Project on Government Oversight. CRS’s leadership is notoriously conservative. I have never heard CRS accused of being forward-looking, and, while this is a topic for another day, the issue of releasing its reports public strikes me as only one example of the organization’s failure to adapt. In recent years, organizations like Open CRS and a number of like-minded members of Congress have made CRS reports increasingly available to the public on the internet. Free Government Information reports legislation introduced in the House last week would mandate public access to CRS reports on the web.This is one of those bills introduced every Congress that go nowhere. Again there’s much more to be said about the erosion of neutral competence in CRS, but – as a student of American government – things are changing. Open CRS and others have made access to CRS reports a matter of a few Google search terms. Like Sam Cooke said, “change is gonna come.” Will CRS see it?