A new website is cracking open Congress’s secretive in-house think tank with a free, publicly accessible archive of 33,000 research reports on public policy issues from the U.S. Postal Service to Bitcoin.
CRSReports.com joins at least two other efforts to wrest the highly regarded studies by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service from the confidential files of Senate and House lawmakers, who request the research and keep it secret unless they choose to release it themselves.
“What we’re doing is simply accessing publicly available websites and downloading what we think are CRS documents,” said Antoine McGrath, 30, who is based in San Francisco and has a passion for digital archives. “We’re casting a wide net.”
McGrath, who worked for the nonprofit Internet Archive, a free digital library, is collaborating on his CRS project with two software programmers who have written a code that scans about 100 sites for metadata in CRS studies. The oldest one they’ve found dates to March 24, 1989: “The Corporate Minimum Tax: Rationale, Effects, and Issues.”
The new site calls itself the Internet’s “largest free and public collection of Congressional Research Service reports.” It has competition, from the Federation of American Scientists and the University of North Texas, both of which have amassed impressive digital libraries of CRS reports.
But none of the three can claim to scrape the Internet for every one of the thousands of studies issued to members of Congress every year by experts on just about every subject that touches government. So it’s a race of sleuths to do the most exhaustive scans they can, from academic sites to postings by embassies and other groups.
CRS has been doing research for lawmakers for 101 years, with the goal of allowing members of Congress to pursue potentially controversial issues without fear of criticism from political opponents. Sometimes lawmakers request the studies; sometimes researchers do them in anticipation of congressional interest.
But in recent months, there has been a new push from a coalition of librarians, open-government advocates and advocates against wasteful spending, who are pressing for an end to what they call excessive secrecy in Congress’s research arm, which operates with a $100 million annual budget.
The advocates say the public is denied access to a large body of research that, although available to congressional staff members, lobbyists and some journalists, through leaks “with no expectation of confidentiality,” never makes it to the public.
Congress does release a small number of reports every year — and they end up scattered over the Internet because they are not easily found in any one place (except CRS.gov, which is not available to the public).
McGrath’s interest in access to CRS reports dates to 2008, when he was an undergraduate studying environmental management and protection at California Polytechnic State University and an intern for Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.), who represents his home town of Napa. McGrath stumbled on a report on U.S. reproductive health policies abroad, which proved to be an “unbiased” guide to him as he researched a senior paper on the subject, he said.