Information, Please

By Elizabeth Williamson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 19, 2007

Deep inside the Library of Congress, 500 researchers pound out the secret intelligence Congress uses to make law.

Legislators request 6,000 Congressional Research Service reports a year, on weapons systems and farm subsidies, prescription prices and energy use. Together, they offer what lobbyists and industry want most: clues to what's next on the Hill.

For years, open-government groups have fought to make the reports public, and for years, many lawmakers have kept them under wraps. Or so they thought.

By insisting on secrecy, Congress instead created a bootleg market for the research. Every day, a small Texas company compiles the reports and sells them to lobbyists, lawyers and others who pay thousands of dollars for a peek at the reports and what they say about the congressional agenda. And it's all legal.

"How I get them is my trade secret . . . but I get them all," said Walt Seager, who digs up the reports for Gallery Watch, a legislative tracking service.

The Congressional Research Service (CRS) was established in 1914 as Congress's supplier of nonpartisan research and analysis. Its reports are neither classified nor copyrighted, but they've long been the exclusive property of lawmakers, who distribute them as they see fit. Taxpayers supply the agency's $100 million annual budget, inspiring open-government groups and some lawmakers, including Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) to push for public release of CRS reports.

"The Library of Congress is a national treasure. The public deserves ready access to the reports it prepares for Congress, and easy online retrieval is the obvious answer," Leahy said. "We need to keep moving toward that goal."

But each time the topic comes up, it runs into a wall erected by lawmakers such as Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who "like many members of Congress, views CRS as an extension of his staff," said Aaron Saunders, Stevens's spokesman. If the reports were made public, "every time a member requests a particular document, the public may infer that he's staking out a particular policy position."

CRS's director, Daniel P. Mulhollan, has left it to Congress to decide. "Once a report is produced for the Congress, it becomes the property of the Congress," he said in a statement. "CRS itself has no public role and is prohibited by law from publishing its work."

It's up to members and committees, Mulhollan said, to release the reports "directly, by inclusion in congressional publications or through their own Web sites."

Open-government groups have a problem with that: "CRS is Congress's brain, and it's useful for the public to be plugged into it," says Steven Aftergood, an open-government advocate who runs the Federation of American Scientists' Secrecy News blog.

Aftergood and others have fought back by posting every CRS report they can find on their Web sites. But watchdog groups have released only about 10 percent of the total, not enough to reveal the patterns that suggest what Congress might do next.

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