Legislation of Interest to CRS: Public Access to CRS ProductsMany of you have seen references in the media and may have received questions regarding public access to CRS products and the new system adopted by our oversight committee for the House to enable Members and committees to more easily place products of their choosing on their Web sites. What follows describes the new system and outlines some of the issues surrounding the debate over public access to our work.
PLACING CRS PRODUCT LINKS ON CONGRESSIONAL WEB SITESDirective Issued by the Committee on House Administration. The Committee on House Administration recently replaced a pilot effort in the House, under which a small number of Members were able to disseminate a limited number of CRS products electronically through their Web sites, with a new system available to all Members and committees. This new arrangement, which utilizes a mirror site created by the Office of House Information Resources (HIR), makes it possible for all congressional offices to place links on their Web sites to an even greater number of CRS products of their choosing than were available under the pilot. Such links will access the most up-to-date version of each product. Congressional offices will use the CRS Web Site to find the products they deem suitable for dissemination.
Statutory Restriction. The prohibition on publication of CRS products without oversight committee approval appears in the annual appropriations acts for the Legislative Branch. This provision is intended to preserve the role of CRS as a confidential resource solely available to the Congress. The appropriations acts, supplemented by congressional guidance that CRS has received over the years, and supported by judicial opinions, leaves to the Members and committees the decision whether, on a selective basis, to place CRS products in the public domain. Members have long made CRS products available to interested persons either directly, by inclusion in congressional publications, or through their own Web sites.
Reliance on CRS Web Site. In keeping with this policy of restricted publication, CRS has created a sophisticated web site available only to the Congress that organizes its products by issues of current anticipated legislative action and also provides word-search capability. This site provides an effective vehicle for the selection process by Members and committees, ensuring that they can find the most suitable and current products for their Web sites.
Avoidance of Costly Duplication. If, instead of relying on the existing CRS Web Site as the tool for Members and committees to locate useful products, CRS attempted to build an additional search capability at the House mirror site, this effort would be redundant and wasteful of resources, and would not likely have been as robust as the CRS Web Site, nor as readily adaptable to changes in congressional needs and the CRS product line.
Key Risks of Wholesale Publication Without Selectivity. Legislation has been introduced in both houses (S. Res. 54 and H.R. 3630) that would authorize the wholesale public dissemination of CRS products, without selectivity, through Member and committee Web sites. Such an approach raises several policy and institutional concerns:
Impairment of Member Communication with Constituents – The danger of placing CRS, a support agency, in an intermediate position responding directly to constituents instead of preserving the direct relationship between constituents and their elected representatives. This threatens the dialog on policy issues between Members and their constituents that was envisioned by the Constitution.
Risk to Protection of Confidentiality – The current judicial and administrative perception of CRS might thereby be altered, putting at risk speech or debate protection for confidential work.
Change in Mission and Congressional Focus – Over time, CRS products might come to be written with a large public audience in mind and could no longer be focused solely on congressional needs.
Reduction in Service to Congress – Wholesale dissemination would inevitably generate a significant number of comments, questions, and concerns from the public regarding content. In addition to placing a burden on congressional offices, responding to such correspondence would require CRS to shift significant resources away from direct service to the Congress.