from the big-big-news dept
Going back nearly a decade, we’ve been talking about the ridiculousness of Congress refusing to publicly release reports from the Congressional Research Service (CRS). As we’ve discussed many times, CRS is an in-house think tank for Congress that is both famously non-partisan and actually really good at what they do. CRS reports tend to be really useful and highly credible (which is part of the reason why Congress isn’t a fan of letting them out into the public). Of course, as works of the federal government, CRS reports are in the public domain, but the way it’s always worked is that the reports are released only to members of Congress. These include both general reports on topics that are released to every member of Congress, or specific research tasked by a member for the CRS to investigate and create a new report. The members who receive the reports are able to release them to the public, and some do, but the vast majority of CRS work remains hidden from public view. For the most part, both CRS and Congress have resisted any attempt to change this. Going back decades, they’ve put together a mostly ridiculous list of reasons opposing plans to more widely distribute CRS reports.
Some members of Congress keep introducing bills to make these public domain CRS reports actually available to the public. We’ve written about such attempts in 2011, 2012, 2015 and earlier this year. And each time they get shot down, often for completely ridiculous reasons, including the belief that making these reports public will somehow hurt CRS’s ability to continue to do good, non-partisan research.
At times, different organizations and groups have taken up the cause themselves. Back in 2009, Wikileaks hit the jackpot and released nearly 7,000 such CRS reports. Steve Aftergood at the Federation of American Scientists has been posting CRS reports to a public archive for quite some time. There’s also Antoine McGrath’s CRSReports.com and some other sites that all create archives of CRS reports that they’ve been able to collect from various sources.
But earlier this week, there was a new entrant: EveryCRSReport.com. Unlike basically all of the other aggregators of CRS reports that collect released reports and aggregate them, it appears that EveryCRSReport basically has teamed up with members of Congress who have access to a massive stash of CRS reports loaded onto the Congressional intranet, all of which have been released via the site — and it appears that the site is automatically updated, suggesting that the still nameless Congressional partners have set up a way to continually feed in new reports. To avoid public pressure or harassment (one of the core reasons used by Congress and CRS to reject proposals to open up the content), the site removes the names and contact info of the CRS staffers who create the reports. The reports that are available are not just in unsearchable PDFs, but they’re fully HTML and fully searchable.
Here are a few reports that folks around here might find interesting: an analysis of ACTA and a recent deep dive into the net neutrality debate. Here’s an interesting one on promoting internet freedom globally. Since the peaceful transition of presidential administrations has suddenly become a hot topic (not for good reasons), here’s a CRS report on that from just last month. It’s also good to see that they have a recently updated list of cybersecurity reports and research for Congressional staffers to dig into (though it’s unclear how many actually do so).
And, yes, of course, there’s one on the “going dark” encryption debate, in which the CRS report rightly notes that backdoors are a bad idea, according to basically all experts:
In considering future legislation on or regulation of encrypted systems and communications, the issue of exceptional access has been raised: is it possible to create a system with sufficiently narrow and protected access points that these points can only be entered by authorized entities and not exploited by others? Experts have generally responded, no. For instance, one group of computer scientists and security experts contends that requiring exceptional access “will open doors through which criminals and malicious nation-states can attack the very individuals law enforcement seeks to defend.” As was the case during the crypto wars of the 1990s, new technology (the Clipper Chip) was introduced that was intended to only allow access to certain communications under specified conditions. Researchers were soon able to expose vulnerabilities in the proposed system, thus halting the implementation of the Clipper Chip.
This is a really awesome resource — it’s a goldmine of useful information, and very thorough, careful research. I’ve only just started digging in.
The whole thing was put together by Demand Progress* and the Congressional Data Coalition, which is a project created by Demand Progress and R Street (which our think tank, the Copia Institute, is a member of). It will be interesting to see how (if?) Congress and the CRS react to this. Hopefully, they don’t freak out, and seek to shut down the various sources of this material. This really is a fantastic resource of carefully done, thorough research on a variety of topics, all technically in the public domain. Check it out.
Hopefully it will help both the rest of Congress and CRS to recognize that actually making publicly funded research public is not such a bad thing. The site itself was put together by Dan Schuman, who used to work for CRS, and he’s actually written up a fascinating blog post about why he did it and why the internal culture at CRS, against such public releases, is wrong, but endemic to the organization (he didn’t begin questioning it himself until after he left):
Over time, I came to realize that the policy concerning public access to CRS reports was counterproductive. Members of Congress could get the reports. Lobbyists and special interests could get the reports from Congress or from private vendors for a fee. Former congressional staff could ask their friends on the hill for a copy. But the general public, unless they knew a report existed, really did not have access.
And that?s too bad. CRS reports are written for intelligent people who are not necessarily policy experts. In a world that?s awash with 5 second YouTube ads, horse race political coverage, and the endless screaming and preening of political figures, these reports are a good way to start to understand an issue.
But he also notes that there are problems with CRS — some of which CRS blames on the fact that reports are being released to the public — including the fact that the reports have become “even-handed to a fault” to avoid pissing off Congress itself in talking down a bad idea. While some of this may also be attributed to worries about reports going public, this seems kind of silly. This is good and credible taxpayer funded research that’s in the public domain. If Congress can learn from it, so can the public:
CRS used to be a very different agency. It used to provide unvarnished advice for members of Congress on the crucial issues of the day. But over time, and especially during the 1990s, the mode of analysis changed to a description of issues, moving away from an evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses of various courses of action. I don?t mean to overstate this, and there are many examples still of prescient analysis, but there was a real change in the way CRS did its work, in large part because of existential concerns. In short, CRS was concerned about irritating its congressional masters by attacking a pet project or cherished belief. The old-timers still had great latitude, but the agency became sclerotic.
Part of this calcification included a fear of public access to the reports. At one time, CRS had published a newsletter about its latest research. And now, while its employees still testify before Congress, they were discouraged and then generally prohibited from sharing their work even with their academic peers. Agency staff grew more insulated and isolated.
But on top of that, recognizing that there are benefits to this research being public, hopefully means that CRS can get beyond just giving out “even handed to a fault” research, and can actually get back to making real recommendations. Over the years, we’ve discussed the ridiculous move by Newt Gingrich a couple decades ago to kill off the Office of Technology Assessment, which actually helped Congress understand complex technological issues in a non-partisan way. A functioning CRS could do the same thing and help put an end to stupid technology debates that often feature clueless arguments on all sides. CRS shouldn’t fear this role, nor should it fear its research being public. It’s a great resource and having it public is great for everyone.
* I’m on the board of Demand Progress, but had no idea about this particular project from them, and, in fact, heard about it from someone else entirely…
Filed Under: congress, congressional research service, education, knowledge, public domain, resources