Tuesday, May 12, 2009

What is the Congressional Research Service (“CRS”) and why is it in the news?

Since people in the news have been talking about CRS recently, I thought I’d pull together some info about the service.

What is CRS?

In 1914, Wisconsin Senator Robert LaFollette and Representative John M. Nelson pushed Congress to include in the “Legislative, Executive, and Judicial Appropriations Act” a provision that would establish, as a division of the Library of Congress, a legislative reference service. See Ida Brudnick, The Congressional Research Service and the American Legislative Process (CRS, Order Code RL33471, 2008). The Wisconsin Congressmen succeeded; President Wilson signed the bill into law; and the Legislative Reference Service (“LRS”) was in business. Several years later, Congress permanently authorized the service as part of the “Legislative Restructuring Act of 1946.” See Id citing ch. 753, title II, sec. 203, August 2, 1946, 60 Stat. 836. CRS did not acquire its current name, however, until 1970.

In 1970, in an effort to reorganize yet again, the 91st Congress passed H.R. 17654, and the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970 became law. See H.R. Rep. No. 91-1215. “Provid[ing] Congress with new sources of information and research, including development of an automatic data processing system [and] expand[ing] the Legislative Reference Service into a Congressional Research Service” was a stated purpose of the legislation. Id. Today CRS is a respected nonpartisan policy research service to Congress. And CRS’s raison d’etre? According to the U.S. Court of Appeals, D.C. Circuit, “to serve Congress.” Keefe v. Library of Congress, 777 F.2d 1573, 1577 (1985).

For this reason, only Congress has access to CRS reports. And only Congress can decide to release a report. As a result, there is no consistent, reliable system for releasing CRS reports to the public. And many never see the light of day.

So what’s the fuss?

CRS reports are really good tools for researchers, policy wonks, and lawyers. The reports cover an unbelievably wide assortment of topics ranging from nuclear proliferation to poverty to, well, CRS itself. And taxpayers foot the bill.
It is this funding mechanism that has motivated various groups, such as the Center for Democracy and Technology through its OpenCRS project and OpenTheGovernment.org, and certain members of Congress, to fight for free access to CRS reports for the general public. They have been fighting this fight for years without success, and many reports have yet to see the light of day.

Why’s it in the news now?

Proponents of open government may soon succeed. Recently, Wikileaks posted on its site over 6,000 CRS reports. But the end of April, Joseph Lieberman (ID-CT) and Senator John McCain (R-AZ) introduced S. Res. 118, which, if adopted, would provide the public with access to CRS publications online.

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