Congress spends about $100 million annually on research that it doesn’t want to share with the people who really pay for it — you.
The Congressional Research Service is a wonky nook of the federal government that many people probably have never heard of. It’s part of the Library of Congress and is staffed by researchers who enjoy digging into the minutia of public policy and presenting the results in digestible form to members of Congress and their staff. CRS researchers field questions from Congress about pretty much anything. Common themes include the history of an issue, the legality of something or its technical details.
Reports can be as short as one page or run to dozens of pages of detailed analysis. What makes them especially valuable is their objectivity and accessibility. The researchers are nonpartisan professionals who present the facts in a manner that members of Congress — and therefore most anyone else — can understand. One day CRS may answer the question “Can military service members carry firearms for personal protection on duty?” (Maybe) to “If EPA requires states to submit greenhouse gas plans, what can it do if states refuse?” (Answer unknown). The answer to the second is unknown because Congress keeps CRS reports secret by default. Americans don’t get to read them unless they are leaked or entered into the congressional record. Those that do wind up in the wild are scattered across the internet. You need to know exactly what you’re looking for or be lucky to find the right one.
A handful of senators and representatives over the years have tried to change that, but their bills and amendments never make it far. This year’s Senate and House bills to make CRS reports public remain tied up in committee. Some secrets are necessary to be sure, and that’s why the bills include provisions to ensure sensitive information is exempt from disclosure. Congress just likes controlling which reports go public, thereby framing the debate. If CRS provides an answer a congressional representative likes, a leak helps sway the public. If he of she doesn’t like the answer, they can bury it.
The sheer magnitude of the unnecessary secrecy recently became apparent when the full 2015 CRS annual report was leaked. It lists more than 1,000 reports provided to Congress last year. That list had been removed from the version the public was supposed to see.
Now, at least, the public knows what the CRS investigated.
If lawmakers remain unconvinced that transparency is the best policy, maybe they’d like to protect Americans from unsavory profiteering.
Reports have started to show up on Amazon for sale. The Kindle version of “School meals programs and other USDA child nutrition programs: A primer” costs $19.95. Buyer beware, of course, when it’s also available for free. Yet not everyone interested in children’s health is used to wading hip deep into federal research and government watchdog websites. Americans are paying for quality research. Congress should give them access to it.
— Jacksonville Journal-Courier