The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Public pays for congressional reports it can’t see

Members of the House of Representatives meet on Capitol Hill. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

Members of Congress often lean on nonpartisan researchers when writing legislation or forming a policy position, but that same information is not readily available to the average American.

And yet, taxpayers spend about $100 million a year for the Congressional Research Service to produce such reports for Congress.

An independent pro-open Internet group created a Web site in 2005 to publicly publish some analyses and briefs – which The Washington Post at the time described as “Napster – but for policy wonks” (remember the old free music site?). But in October it shut down citing lack of “time and resources.”

There are other ways for an interested citizen to get the reports, such as directly asking a congressional office or paying $20 to a publishing company that reproduces them. But there’s no easy or central place for Americans to access them.

The reports are often written in plain language and break down the background and issues around a certain policy or event. Some recent reports include: “The President’s State of the Union Address: Tradition, Function, and Policy Implications,” “Constitutional Authorities Under Which Congress Regulates State Taxation,” and “Border Security: Immigration Enforcement Between Ports of Entry.”

For many years, lawmakers have tried to make the case for making the reports public. On Wednesday, Reps. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) and Leonard Lance (R-N.J) reintroduced legislation to create a free, public electronic database for CRS materials.

In a joint letter to colleagues, they suggested that the public would benefit from “neutral, unbiased information” to help cut through the partisan talking points.

But maybe other members of Congress don’t want an informed electorate? There were some hearings held in 1998, but otherwise the effort has languished.