Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) would like to give you his colleagues' crib sheets.
McCain, along with Sens. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), has introduced a resolution that would help open the Congressional Research Service, considered one of the best sources of information on pending legislation, to the public.
Their proposal would allow the Senate to publish most of the service's reports and issue briefs and other data, which are currently reserved for lawmakers, on a centralized Web site. That site would not be accessible to the public, but, from it, individual senators could pick reports to place on their personal and committee Web sites for public viewing.
"This resolution will ensure more widespread dissemination of information and encourage Americans to find out more about their government," McCain said in a statement. "Interested and educated voters are vital to a flourishing democracy."
The CRS, an office of the Library of Congress, publishes hundreds of reports annually, on seemingly every conceivable public policy issue -- including American relations with Azerbaijan, meat and poultry inspections, and how Congress might combat "spam" e-mail. Last summer, the agency even investigated whether James A. Traficant Jr., the flamboyant former lawmaker from Ohio who was imprisoned on corruption charges, could legally run, as he then threatened to do, for reelection from his cell (CRS's answer was yes, he could).
Lawmakers and their staffs routinely use the reports -- almost universally described as nonpartisan, concise and readable -- to get up to speed on issues, track bills and investigate legislative histories.
The public can also use the reports, with a little legwork. Constituents may request CRS documents from individual lawmakers. Some House members, through a pilot program, post the reports on their Web sites. And some of the CRS reports can be purchased from private vendors, who presumably get them from current or former lawmakers.
But all of that is too cumbersome, haphazard and unfair to the public, supporters of the measure say -- especially because the service is funded by taxpayers' money. The agency received $81 million for fiscal 2002.
And, they say, none of the other government entities that provide public information on congressional initiatives -- the General Accounting Office, the Congressional Budget Office, the Library of Congress's THOMAS Web site -- provide as much information as quickly as the CRS.
The proposal has won the support of a gaggle of good- and open-government groups, including the Project on Government Oversight, the American Library Association, the American Society of Newspaper Editors and the Center for Responsive Politics.
The CRS, however, has issued a terse response to the idea, saying that it is not designed to perform -- at least not directly -- a "public information function" and that courts have upheld its role as a "confidential and exclusive adviser to Congress."
The CRS has opposed similar plans for years, arguing, in more loquacious moments, that it would create many legal and practical problems that would distract its 700 analysts from their mission. In 1998, the CRS said interest groups, lobbyists and critics of all stripes would likely inundate the agency with comments and complaints, trying to steer its reports in a particular direction, if the reports were widely distributed.
The service also mentioned fears that it might be held liable for comments made in the reports -- or that it might be sued for copyright infringement.
The senators' proposal attempts to allay some of those concerns by allowing, for example, the agency to redact certain information from the reports before they are published, such as the names of the analysts involved and any copyrighted information.