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Watchdog Groups, Some Lawmakers Say Congressional Reports Should Be Made Public

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.

Subscribers to Gallery Watch pay about $4,000 a year to get all the CRS reports, online and searchable, delivered weekly.

Gallery Watch sells other legislative tracking tools, but the reports are the key reason clients subscribe, said Patrick Riendeau, a sales executive. Besides lobbyists, lawyers, and corporations, universities and news organizations subscribe.

At a recent meeting for potential customers, Riendeau explained that clients scan the reports for intelligence "kind of how the CIA operates," by spotting the political trends suggested by their contents and timing, he said. About a year ago, lawmakers made a flurry of requests for CRS reports related to North Korean counterfeiting of U.S. currency; not until months later, when the Treasury Department cracked down on North Korea, did the issue appear in newspapers.

Gallery Watch, owned by the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call, gets the publications from Seager, 68, a former trade magazine journalist based in Damascus, who for 20 years has mined the Hill for them.

"I'm just an old Washington journalist who knows how to find things," Seager said. He got started, he said, two decades ago when he found a CRS catalogue of new reports in a congressman's office. He made copies of it and sold subscriptions, with instructions on how to get the reports by contacting lawmakers. When CRS stopped publishing the listing, Seager started finding the reports himself.

"I upload an average of about 100 a week" to Gallery Watch, he said.

If the reports were ever made available to all, "I would comfortably retire to my mountain retreat in West Virginia and be very happy, because that's the way it should be -- taxpayers pay for them," he said.

But he doesn't think that will happen. For one thing, he said, "incumbents like to provide them to their constituents [saying] 'glad to be of service, hint, hint, remember me at election time.' "

Second, he said, CRS is "a think tank working for [members] exclusively and not for the people running against them. They've got all this brainpower behind them making them look very knowledgeable."

"The less I know, the better," said Gallery Watch Senior Vice President Arnie Thomas about Seager's methods.

While he would not provide a list of clients, citing privacy concerns, the company's Web site client list includes lobbying and law firms, Mitsubishi, the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation and the Department of Agriculture.

Deloitte & Touche lobbyists hailed Gallery Watch in an online testimonial: "With the collapse of Enron . . . almost daily there were numerous bills being introduced that required us to research and analyze the impact of the proposed legislation on the accounting profession," one said. "We need a tool to tell us when something is going on."

Staff researchers Madonna Lebling and Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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