Congressional Research Service

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This article is part of the Tobacco portal on Sourcewatch funded from 2006 - 2009 by the American Legacy Foundation.

The Congressional Research Service (CRS) is a research-based legislative branch agency within the Library of Congress. The Congressional Research Service’s mission is to provide Congress with its own source of nonpartisan, objective analysis and research on all legislative issues. As a legislative branch agency within the Library of Congress, CRS works exclusively and directly for Members of Congress, their Committees and staff on a confidential, nonpartisan basis.[1]

CRS Structure

CRS is divided into five research divisions: American Law; Domestic Social Policy; Foreign Affairs, Defense and Trade; Government and Finance; and Resources, Science and Industry. Each of these divisions contains more specific subdivisions. The researchers and analysts at CRS rely on additional research from the Knowledge Study Group.[2]

Congressional Uses

The following are number of ways that CRS explains how it provides support to members of Congress and their staffs:

  • Members may ask CRS to provide background information and analysis on issues and events so they can better understand the existing situation.
  • Members and committees also can request CRS to help them assess and compare legislative proposals, including competing bills introduced by Members and proposals presented by executive branch officials, private citizens and organizations.
  • CRS analysts can assist in [the committee] process by providing background information and reports, presenting a preliminary briefing to Members or staff, identifying potential witnesses, and suggesting questions that Members may consider asking the witnesses.
  • CRS attorneys can help clarify legal effects [a] bill may have. … CRS also can help Members prepare for the debate by providing data and other information that they can use to support the positions they have decided to take.
  • CRS staff can clarify the legislative procedures of the House and Senate, assisting Members and staff in understanding the effects of these procedures and how Members can use the procedures to promote their own legislative goals.
  • CRS attempts to assess emerging issues and developing problems so that it will be prepared to assist the Congress if and when it becomes necessary.

CRS also operates an internal legislative search website called the Legislative Information Service (LIS) that is superior to the publicly available legislative search tool THOMAS. The Project on Government Accountability has produced a detailed chart [3] of what makes LIS a more effective legislative search tool than THOMAS.

CRS and Tobacco Issues

On May 11, 1994, representatives of the Congressional Research Service criticized the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's January 1993 Risk Assessment in which EPA desginated secondhand tobacco smoke as a Group A Human Carcinogen, saying in Senate testimony that statistical evidence does not appear to support a conclusion that there are substantial health effects from passive smoking.(WP 7/25/94)[1]

Philip Morris subsequently issued a statement saying that in light of the CRS report, "...[D]raconian restrictions on smoking currently being considered need to be reconsidered and opportunities encouraged to accommodate the preferences of both smokers and nonsmokers." [2]

In fact, after the CRS report came out, one of the authors of the CRS study, C. Stephen Redhead, told a Canadian newspaper that the tobacco industry had misrepresented the CRS report, and that it does not refute the EPA's report.[4]


Private vs. Public Access

CRS Position Supporting Congressional Access Only
Since 1952 Congress has stipulated that it alone be granted access to CRS studies, analysis, and research. CRS is precluded by this 1952 law “from general public distribution of its material without prior approval by one of its two congressional oversight committees.”

In 1980 the Joint Committee on the Library affirmed that “the circulation of CRS materials prepared specifically for congressional use be limited to the Congress, and that the long-standing policy of confidentiality in the work of CRS for individual congressional client should be maintained.”[3] Following the Committee’s release of recommended guidelines the Senate enacted a Senate Resolution that resolved:

“That it is the determination of the Senate that the communications of the Congressional Research Service to the members and committees of the Congress are under the custody and control of the Congress and may be released only by the Congress, its Houses, committees and members, in accordance with the rules and privileges of each House.”[5]

The 1980 guidelines proposed by the Joint Committee on the Library and the Senate Resolution outlined the current policy that protects the Congressional Research Service from doing any work for the general public or their consumption while leaving it to members of Congress to decide what, if any, public availability should be allowed for CRS reports. The Congressional Research Service made the following observation in a 1998 report on whether CRS reports should be widely available to the public:

“The principles of representative government and of legislative accountability hold that representatives have an obligation to provide their constituents with the information and understanding required in order to exercise democratic citizenship; that is, the democratic idea that the authority of those who govern rest on the consent of those who are governed, call for democratic consent to be full informed and enlightened. …
Moreover, technology now enables Members and Committees to make CRS products available to constituents in electronic format through congressional Homepages.”[4]

Both this statement and the Senate Resolution from 1980 show that the CRS and the Congress agree that only the Congress itself can make CRS reports publicly available and that the CRS should be precluded from public distribution of its materials created for Congress.

The Congressional Research Service has long been opposed to widespread public dissemination of its reports to Congress. In their own report on the issue of increasing public availability of CRS reports they expressed reservations about numerous problems including the pressure to “address views, methods, disciplines, and expectations of non-congressional professional peers, with the result that CRS written work could shift away, from its current emphasis on the congressional audience”; the possibility that “outside parties may judge and question CRS papers on the basis of standards other than the standards CRS has developed to meet congressional needs (e.g., timeliness, non-partisanship, balance, objectivity)”; and multiple legal issues related to “copyright infringement”, “the speech and debate clause”, and “confidentiality … and … constitutional immunity”.

Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) sides with CRS as he sees the service as an extension of his staff. Stevens office states that if reports were made public then "every time a member requests a particular document, the public may infer that he's staking out a particular policy position."[5]

Congressional Support for Public Access
In each Congress from the 105th to the 108th Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) has proposed a bill to provide for the Senate Sergeant-at-Arms to make CRS reports available for Members of Congress and Committees to post to their public websites at their own discrertion.[6] Both Rep. Chris Shays (R-Ct.) and then-Rep. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) proposed similar legislation in the House of Representatives in the 104th and 105th Congresses. Former Rep. Mark Green (R-Wisc.) and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) have also provided a large amount of support for greater public access to CRS reports.

The following current Senators have sponsored or cosponsored legislation that would provide greater public access to CRS reports: McCain, Leahy, Joe Lieberman (I-Ct.), Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), Trent Lott (R-Miss.), Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), Tom Coburn (R-Ok.), and Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.).

Other Members of Congress have expressed support for public access to CRS reports according to the Project on Government Oversight report on CRS public access:

“In 1998, then-Chairman of the Rules Committee Senator John Warner (R-VA) and Ranking Member Wendell Ford (D-KY) disseminated CRS products through the Committee’s website, taking the position that it is appropriate ‘for Members and Committees to use their web sites to further disseminate CRS products,’ and, in fact, encouraging them to do so. Senator Tom Daschle (D-SD) was the first to respond to this suggestion, putting almost 300 CRS products on his website.”[7]

Outside Pressure for Public Access
A number of open government groups have banded together to pressure Congress and CRS to release the reports to the public through the Internet. These groups include the Federation of American Scientists, Center for Democracy and Technology, American Library Association, Center for Responsive Politics, Common Cause, Public Citizen, National Security Archive, OMB Watch, POGO, and Taxpayers for Common Sense, among other groups.

Steve Aftergood, the head of the Federation of American Scientists' Secrecy News Blog, says, "CRS is Congress's brain, and it's useful for the public to be plugged into it."[8]



Access Resources

Other resources for CRS reports (thanks to University of North Texas Libraries):

CRS moves to restrict public access to its reports

Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) reported on March 22, 2007:

"In what is being characterized by subordinates as an act of 'managerial dementia,' the Director of the Congressional Research Service this week prohibited all public distribution of CRS products without prior approval from senior agency officials.

I have concluded that prior approval should now be required at the division or office level before products are distributed to members of the public,' wrote CRS Director Daniel P. Mullohan in a memo to all CRS staff (pdf). This policy is effective immediately.

While CRS has long refused (with Congressional concurrence) to make its electronic database of reports available to the public online, it has still been possible for members of the press, other researchers, and other government officials to request specific reports from the congressional support agency. [6]

Aftergood also stated that the new CRS policy runs in opposition to many other government agencies' attempts to expand accessibility to information. He also wrote that this policy could run counterproductive to the CRS's goal of providing quality products to Congress, because it curtails existing avenues of information sharing, as well as limiting the possibility of establishing new paths of information acquisition. To substantiate this, Aftergood provided a recent example of FAS and CRS information sharing:

"With some frequency, CRS analysts contact FAS with requests for information or documents. (A recent CRS report on Chinese naval modernization (pdf) reprinted a large excerpt of an analysis of Chinese submarine patrols by FAS analyst Hans Kristensen.) We haven't been shy about requesting information or documents in return. And both sides seem to have benefitted."

H.R.2545 - Congressional Research Accessibility Act proposed

On May 24, 2007, Congressman Christopher Shays (CT), along with two co-sponsors, Congressman Jay Inslee (WA) and David E. Price (NC), introduced H.R.2545-Congressional Research Accessibility Act, with the descriptive official title of: "To make available on the Internet, for purposes of access and retrieval by the public, certain information available through the Congressional Research Service web site."

H.R.2545 was Referred to the House Committee on House Administration, where it is presently being considered for approval.

Articles & Resources

References

  1. Congressional Research Service About Government website, accessed October 25, 2011
  2. Congressional Research Service Areas of Research, Government website, accessed October 25, 2011
  3. Project on Government Oversight Congressional Research Service Products: Taxpayers Should Have Easy Access, Chart, February 10, 2003
  4. Jalsevac, P., "Second-hand smoke study misused, scientist says," Kitchener-Waterloo Record: B1, February 8, 1996
  5. S. Res. 396, 96th Congress
  6. Steven Aftergood, "CRS Clamps Down on Public Distribution," Federation of American Scientists, March 22, 2007

Resources

Center for Democracy and Technology-Open CRS Network

Federation of American Scientists

The Franklin Pierce Law Center Intellectual Property Mall: CRS Reports

US State Department - Foreign Press Center

Law Librarians' Society of Washington, D.C.

Misc.

CRS Reports Search tool

Articles

Congresspedia/SourceWatch Resources

--Paulblumenthal 15:00, 20 February 2007 (EST)

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