Public Access to CRS Reports Urged

Dozens of public interest groups wrote to the Librarian of Congress last week to urge him to appoint a new Director of the Congressional Research Service who would work with Congress to promote public access to CRS reports.

“The public needs access to these non-confidential CRS reports in order to discharge their civic duties,” the letter (pdf) stated. “American taxpayers spend over $100 million a year to fund the CRS, which generates detailed reports relevant to current political events for lawmakers. But while the reports are non-classified, and play a critical role in our legislative process, they have never been made available in a consistent and official way to members of the public.”

There are several large collections of CRS reports that have been placed online by public interest groups, including the Federation of American Scientists.  But Congress has prohibited CRS from providing its products directly to the public.  And the current CRS director, Daniel Mulhollan, who is retiring in the next few weeks, has actively supported that non-disclosure policy.

What has happened under Mr. Mulhollan’s tenure is that CRS reports have been commodified.  Instead of being made freely available to the public, they are marketed by vendors.  A typical ten-page report may be sold for as much as $29.95 ($19.95 for students!).  Mr. Mulhollan has produced a litany of arguments (pdf) against public distribution of CRS reports, but all of them are mooted by the simple fact that the reports are distributed anyway– for a fee.

The appointment of a new CRS Director will be an opportunity to chart a new, more sensible course for the congressional support agency, to include free public distribution of non-confidential reports.

Some noteworthy new CRS reports include the following (all pdf).

“U.S. Response to the Global Threat of Tuberculosis: Basic Facts,” February 22, 2011.

“U.S. Response to the Global Threat of Malaria: Basic Facts,” February 22, 2011.

“U.S. Response to the Global Threat of HIV/AIDS: Basic Facts,” February 22, 2011.