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Friday, September 22, 2006

A Prescient 2003 Column on CRS Access

Sylvia Smith has covered the nation's capitol for the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette for a lot of years and she has seen a lot of politicians and promises come and go. She wrote the following column Aug. 8, 2003, on the lack of public access to Congressional Research Service reports.

Smith's column makes clear both why taxpayers should have access to at least most CRS reports and the fact one Member of Congress can unilaterally make a difference for the public's right to know how its business is being conducted:

WASHINGTON -- Not long after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Sen. Richard Lugar was working on a document that eventually became known as the Lugar Doctrine, which outlined his view on the tack U.S. foreign policy should take in our heightened awareness of weapons of mass destruction.
One of the things he wanted to know, as he worked on the paper, was which countries have both terrorists cells and weapons of mass destruction.
It's not the sort of thing you can look up in the World Book Encyclopedia, and the Pentagon was reluctant to commit itself.
But when Lugar's staff asked the Congressional Research Service, its researchers were able to develop the lists.
"It was maybe the most scholarly overlay ever done," said Lugar's press secretary, Andy Fisher.
Over the years, Lugar's office has relied on the Congressional Research Service countless times, as have all members of Congress, their staffs and the congressional committees.
The Congressional Research Service provides the best, most clearly written, least slanted information about public policy issues to be had in Washington - which is to say, in the world.
But if you call the CRS, you won't get a single word of a single report.
The Congressional Research Service was created almost a century ago by and for Congress for its own edification. Until Congress says it can share its myriad reports (from abortion to the World Trade Organization), CRS is a closed shop.
The fact that you and I and our taxpaying neighbors pony up to the tune of about $75 million a year for these top-notch researchers is irrelevant. It is not a publicly available resource.
That's a ridiculous situation. Like most ridiculous situations, it can be gotten around.
The first way is to pay $299 a year to subscribe to a for-profit organization that then sells individual CRS reports for $7.95 a pop. (It's $29.95 for non-subscribers.) Penny Hill Press's Web site doesn't happen to mention how it gets the reports.
The drawback to this approach is the cost and the absurdity of paying twice for something.
The second is to ask a member of Congress for a report. Most people don't know the Congressional Research Service exists, let alone that a call to a House or Senate office will yield results.
But it will. Rep. Mark Souder, R-3rd, for instance, gets a couple of constituent requests each year for CRS reports. Lugar gets a few each month.
The flaws in this approach are that you have to know the report exists (although most public policy topics are covered), there's a time element involved, and maybe you don't want a member of the government knowing what you're interested in.
The third way to scale the CRS castle wall is to take advantage of the offer made by a Wisconsin Republican who thinks taxpayers ought to be able to use what they pay for.
So Rep. Mark Green's Web page has a link to the Congressional Research Service's various reports.
A click or two, and you can learn all you'd ever want to know about daylight-saving time, Ecstasy (the drug), countercyclical assistance for farmers, Internet gambling, the labor issues involved in the U.S.-Jordan free trade agreement, state laws on human cloning, Plan Colombia or the next excuse for a party. (It's National Airborne Day, Aug. 16. I know that from the report called "Commemorative Observances: A Chronological List.")
A link Green has on his Web page (www. house.gov/markgreen) goes directly to the list of CRS reports.
It's the intragovernment link available to anyone hooked in to a congressional computer system, but that excludes the taxpaying public.
Green's Web page is essentially a conduit between the treasure trove of information and the people who paid for it.
There are no down sides to this approach except to politicians.
Say you want the background on the African Development Bank and Fund and ask your member of Congress to help. Some staffer will get the CRS report, put it in the mail to you (or e-mail it if you've e-mailed your query) and include a letter from said member of Congress saying it was a pleasure to assist, and write any time.
You, of course, will be most grateful and perhaps will keep this in mind when Election Day rolls around.
"If you're that hard up to get constituent appreciation, you have deeper problems than whether or not a CRS report is on your Web site," Green said.
None of the Hoosier congressional delegation has followed Green's leadership. If we're lucky, perhaps they will.

A 30-year veteran of The Journal Gazette, Sylvia Smith has covered Washington for 14 years. She is the only Washington-based reporter who exclusively covers northeast Indiana.

Thanks to Sylvia for pointing this column out to me earlier today. See, I have friends in high places!