FOIA Friday: The Equal Access to CRS Reports Act of 2016

FOIA Friday at the Harris County Law Library: Equal Access to CRS Reports Act of 2016

Throughout the month of July, the Harris County Law Library is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Freedom of Information Act. Accordingly, with today’s blog post, the Law Library is calling attention to an important piece of pending legislation, the Equal Access to CRS Reports Act of 2016, an initiative with broad support and strong endorsements from a coalition of 40 organizations, including the American Library Association. (Senate and House versions of the bill are available online.) This bipartisan initiative seeks to expand access to government information and to increase participation in the political process by establishing an electronic database of CRS materials for the benefit of the public good.

CRS Reports, an invaluable resource for lawmakers, are objective, nonpartisan issue briefs on pending legislation and other items of debate before Congress. They are produced by the Congressional Research Service, an agency whose staff includes more than 600 people and whose annual budget exceeds $100 million. The reports are not classified, yet, with few exceptions, they are not freely available to the public. Constituents may request the reports from congressional offices, but no central repository of CRS Reports is available in the public domain.  

In January of 2015, Representatives Leonard Lance (R) and Mike Quigley (D) introduced a measure that would direct the Congressional Research Service (CRS) to “develop and maintain a centralized, searchable, electronic database of CRS materials for public access.” In a letter to their Congressional colleagues, Representatives Lance and Quigley stated their case:

“Across the nation, citizens are deeply and passionately engaged in debates about the future of our country and the significant challenges we face at home and abroad.  However, as the public debate has become increasingly partisan and polarized, it is more important than ever for citizens to have full access to the same neutral, unbiased information that many of us rely on to help us formulate important decisions.  Opening CRS to the public will empower our constituents with vital information about key issues, policies and budgets.”

Until this or similar legislation is passed, the only public sources for CRS Reports are the websites of those who harvest the documents from incidental sources and make them available online. Aside from these private organizations, universities, and transparency advocates, however, which reporters and lobbyists often rely upon, the public has few other options.Today, on FOIA Friday, the Law Library is highlighting this potentially transformative legislation and the right of the American people to access the government information that drives our nation's democracy.