Free the CRS!

Government transparency


Call the Congressional Research Service (CRS), and a chirpy automated assistant offers five options to start your data search. Three of them are for members of Congress or their employees, and they are free. The rest of them are for the rest of us, and they're not quite free. In fact, if you want to use the papers compiled by Congress' think tank, you have to shell out hundreds of dollars to Lexis-Nexis or another company that buys access to them. A one-year subscription to GalleryWatch, which claims to have the largest collection of reports, costs $4,000.

This exclusivity puzzles open-government activists, since taxpayers pony up $100 million every year for CRS research. You could blame bureaucratic inertia; according to Wired's Luke O'Brien, the CRS itself buys a subscription from GalleryWatch instead of archiving its own work. The Center for Democracy and Technology works around the problem by collecting CRS reports from people who have purchased them and posting them at opencrs.com. But that's a stopgap measure.

"Congress members already have a fully functioning, searchable CRS website," says the center's David McGuire. "It would be relatively simple to make it available to the public. It's really pretty unconscionable that in order to have full access to these reports, taxpayers have to pay for them twice." Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) are sponsoring legislation to open the reports to the public; in the House, the liberal Connecticut Republican Christopher Shays supports a similar bill.

Perhaps the biggest break for the reformers came when a Republican congressman from Ohio blasted the CRS—not for locking up its studies but for doing research that could damage representatives' pet projects. "Let someone else do the research," he said. "Why give your opposition free research?" The congressman? Jack Abramoff's associate Bob Ney, a.k.a. Inmate No. 28882-016.