CRS Is Still Congress' Best-Kept Secret

By Dennis McCafferty

Staff Writer

Click on the Library of Congress' mission statement on its World Wide Web site, and you'll read that the library strives to make its resources "available and useful to the Congress and the American people."

But try to click on any of the policy and legislative research reports that the library's Congressional Research Service produces, and you're out of luck. It's on the Web, but access is restricted. If you want a copy of a CRS report, you'll have to ask a member of Congress.

Why? Because that's how most federal lawmakers want to keep it.

The CRS, whose $63 million 1997 budget is funded by U.S. taxpayers, provided nearly 700,000 copies of reports and issue briefs to Congress in 1996, according to transcripts of a House budget hearing held last month. Many of those reports dealt with infotech issues.

In a recent letter written to a watchdog group which voiced concerns about the lack of public access, CRS Director Daniel P. Mulhollan wrote that the policy is necessary to ensure the service remains "a confidential and exclusive adviser to Congress."

However, critics say the CRS should make its taxpayer-funded research directly available to the public.

The Washington-based Federation of American Scientists, a nonprofit advocacy group for open government that voiced the concerns to the CRS, blasted the policy in a bulletin this month. The federation noted with irony that library people are supposed to be for people getting information.

"It's unusual that you'd have this very large Web presence that's not publicly accessible," said John Pike, director of the cyberstrategy project for the federation. "The electorate has the right to the same information to make decisions as the elected officials do."

The federation recently slipped into an unsecured area of the CRS Web archives and posted about 150 of the service's reports within the last month on its own Web site. Among those reports was a December 1996 summary of the Clinton administration's budget squabbles with lawmakers over the billions of dollars spent to support technology programs.

A other CRS report from January detailed for Congress the intense debate between the White House and lawmakers on Capitol Hill over encryption policy.

CRS officials claim they're simply following federal law and policy that has stood for decades. Among other concerns, the CRS fears that special-interest groups and academic types accessing the Web will flood CRS analysts with calls for changes or additions in the reports, according to a December 1995 policy summary.

"We're perfectly happy to work with the current policy and feel Congress had a good reason for establishing it," said Hugh Elsbree, associate director for policy compliance at CRS.

CRS officials are set to testify before the Senate Rules and Administration Committee on March 20 at a budget hearing, and there's indication that the subject of public access may come up.

As chairman of the House Computer and Information Services Working Group, Rep. Vernon J. Ehlers, R-Mich., has worked to open up CRS access on the Web. But he indicated prospects are slim for any quick remedies.

"It may never happen," said Ehlers. "There are feelings here that if a member of Congress wants to put a report on the Web, so be it. But if not, that's the way it is," said Ehlers.

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