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House panel poised to order that congressional research reports be made public

The U.S. Capitol dome at sunset on Nov. 18, 2016, in Washington. (Alex Brandon/AP)

Congress is getting closer to ordering that its taxpayer-funded research reports be made public following a breakthrough in the decades-long fight to bring greater transparency to the work of the Congressional Research Service.

A draft report set to be adopted by the House Appropriations Committee on Thursday includes language ordering the CRS “to make available to the public, all non-confidential reports.” That language could still be amended, and report language does not carry the force of law, but the guidance is generally followed by U.S. agencies.

This is the farthest CRS transparency efforts have advanced after a long push to make the agency’s reports more directly accessible to the public. CRS reports are already available on the Internet through at least three private online troves, as well as through paid middlemen, but they have never been released to the public in a complete and systematic manner.

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“Nothing in these reports are confidential or require clearance to review,” said Rep. Kevin Yoder (R-Kan.), chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on the Legislative Branch. “Most of these reports end up in the public domain anyway. They’re just not centrally located and easily findable. … I can’t find a compelling reason we shouldn’t do it.”

Last year, a push to amend the Legislative Branch appropriations bill to add a CRS transparency measure led by Reps. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) and Scott Rigell (R-Va.) failed on a bipartisan 32-18 vote after both Republican and Democratic lawmakers raised concerns. But the fact that the report language appears in the base report this year could give the transparency language an advantage because committee members tend to give some deference to a subcommittee’s recommendations.

Under current CRS policy, agency products are released only under limited circumstances, such as when a report is given to a federal agency after the agency provided data for analysis.

In 2015, the agency issued a “policy on confidentiality” holding that “CRS staff must consider and treat as confidential all information related to CRS’ work for Congress” and that even non-confidential reports “are prepared exclusively for Congress.”

Supporters of transparency argue that the agency, a subsidiary of the Library of Congress with a $108 million budget this year, ought to make its products public as a matter of course, with exceptions granted for sensitive national security matters and for private analysis and communications with individual members. Critics of the push say more openness would irreparably change the relationship between lawmakers and the agency and could make it more difficult for CRS to render quick and useful analysis.

Yoder said Wednesday that the Library of Congress and CRS “expressed no objections” to releasing non-confidential reports in recent hearings, and the report language indicates that his subcommittee considers the question settled.

“The Committee has debated this issue for several years, and after considering debate and testimony from entities inside the legislative branch and beyond the Committee believes the publishing of CRS reports will not impede CRS’s core mission in any impactful way and is in keeping with the Committee’s priority of full transparency to the American people,” the draft report says.

The agency is directed to submit a transparency plan and cost estimates to relevant congressional committees within 90 days.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified Yoder as Todd Yoder, not Kevin Yoder.