(Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News)

Amid controversy over the secrecy surrounding the Congressional Research Service, Kevin Kosar, a veteran of that congressional think tank, urges that the public be given direct access to its reports.

It seemed like a silly question, but as the new guy, I was obliged to ask: “Can I e-mail a copy of my report to my mother?”

Mom had been a local reporter when I was a kid and worked for a county government in Ohio. She has always had a bottomless appetite for politics and government, and her retirement years afforded plenty of time to read. I figured she would find my first Congressional Research Service report interesting. I also thought she would be proud to see her son published by such a prestigious organization.

“Well,” a supervisor told me, “strictly speaking, no. Only Congress may distribute our reports to the public.”

[Trying to crack open Congress’s confidential think tank after a century of secrecy]

I was gobsmacked. A publisher, Penny Hill Press, already was selling copies of my report to lobbyists and any other takers. Like any other CRS report, it contained no classified information. It was a short, bland primer on Fannie Mae and the other government-sponsored enterprises and Congress’s rationale for establishing them.

Seeing the shock in my face, the supervisor smiled and said, “Of course, I don’t know how anybody could find out if you did send a copy to your mother.”

That was in the autumn of 2003. Over next 11 years at CRS, this secret-but-not-actually-secret policy increasingly struck me as increasingly anachronistic and costly. Which it is.

Despite the official ban, CRS reports are scattered over myriad government and private Web sites. The more than 20,000 congressional staff members, as is their prerogative, give them out to interest groups and constituents. Taxpayers, meanwhile, spend $100 million annually to fund the CRS but have no direct access to the agency’s reports. Nor have they any way to ascertain if the copies they stumble across online are authentic.

Congress is to blame for this bizarre situation. It established CRS a century ago to provide nonpartisan research and reference support to Congress. The agency’s reports are rigorously nonpartisan and cover almost every topic available, from agriculture to medical malpractice to Zip code boundaries. Nothing in the agency’s statute addresses who may disseminate its reports. Each year, however, Congress includes in the CRS appropriation a “Mad Men”-era provision stating:

“[N]o part of such amount may be used to pay any salary or expense in connection with any publication, or preparation of material therefor (except the Digest of Public General Bills), to be issued by the Library of Congress unless such publication has obtained prior approval of either the Committee on House Administration of the House of Representatives or the Committee on Rules and Administration of the Senate.”

Its initial rationale was penny-pinching, not a general animus toward transparency. Sen. Karl E. Mundt (R-S.D.) who fought for the rider in 1954, was worried about the cost of making “photostatic” copies. “I can see how [CRS] analysis would be in great demand by newspapers and women’s clubs, and so forth, and unless put on some compensatory basis would run to quite an expenditure.”

CRS reports, then, never have been kept “secret” as a matter of policy or in practice. Congress publicly releases many CRS reports each year. Before the Internet, reports regularly were published in the Congressional Record and as committee prints, which were made available to the public at Federal Depository Libraries all over America. CRS’s annual report from 1979, for example, lists dozens of “CRS studies in the public domain” on all sorts of contentious topics, such as diplomatic recognition of the People’s Republic of China and chemical contaminants in food. These days, Congress posts CRS bill digests and its Constitution Annotated on the publicly available Congress.gov Web site. Every two years, the Senate publishes CRS’s authoritative tax compendium. Last autumn, Congress published a marvelous, 400-page volume of studies titled “The Evolving Congress.” Assorted CRS reports can be found on House.gov and Senate.gov.

Yet the blue law lives on in the Internet age, with, ironically, costs that far outweigh those that worried  Mundt. Congressional staff waste precious time sending copies of CRS reports to citizens who want them but cannot find them online. Libraries must buy subscriptions to CRS reports through private services.

And CRS particularly suffers since it has had to invent policies in a futile effort to try honor the antiquated dissemination ban. CRS employees squander time jumping through bureaucratic hoops to licitly share copies of their reports with fellow experts at universities and think tanks. When media ask CRS for a report, analysts must refer them to the communications office, which then has to assess whether sharing the report would advance the interests of Congress. Agency managers are forced to police staff members to ensure they are not violating the policy by, say, posting links to their reports on their LinkedIn pages.

It is a ludicrous situation that benefits nobody except those who sell access to the reports. (Penny Hill charges subscribers $399 per year.) Which is why 40 groups – along with retired and former CRS employees with 500 years of combined agency experience – recently asked Congress to act.

Congress can easily fix all these problems. CRS produces perhaps 1,200 reports per year, and it updates a couple of thousand others. It would cost little for Congress to post copies of the reports to a publicly available Web site, as Reps. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) and Leonard Lance (R-N.J.) advocate. It would not even require passing a law. The House and or Senate could just do it. Congressional and CRS staff members then could direct the public (including academics, journalists, and moms) to the reports.

Some CRS employees worry that wider public dissemination might produce a tidal wave of calls from members of the public and interest groups. This is unlikely. Both the Congressional Budget Office and Government Accountability Office release their reports. Besides, thousands of copies of CRS reports already are out there. (Wikileaks dumped more than 6,700 CRS reports online five years ago.) Nonetheless, employee concerns can be addressed by replacing researchers’ phone numbers and e-mail addresses with hyperlinks to their CRS.gov contact pages, which only congressional staff members can access.

Making CRS reports more equitably available would be good for the CRS, good for Congress and good for the American public. As former representative Chris Shays (R-Conn.) stated, “To me this is motherhood and apple pie. … Just do it.”

Kevin R. Kosar is director of the governance project at the R Street Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank that promotes free markets and limited government. He was a CRS analyst and manager for more than a decade. He can be reached at kkosar@rstreet.org and followed on Twitter @kevinrkosar.