In a blow to congressional transparency, the House Appropriations Committee voted against publicly releasing highly informative, taxpayer-funded reports that members use to educate themselves on the issues before Congress.
At a time when highly informed voters might seem like a good thing, the Appropriations Committee voted down, 18-32, an amendment from Reps. Mike Quigely (D-Ill.) and Scott Rigell (R-Va.) that would have made it easier for the public to access Congressional Research Service reports.
Under current law, CRS reports are made available when a member of CRS staff sends a report out and it finds its way online. In practice, lobbyists and private legislative tracking companies get their hands on the reports as soon as members do, while private citizens remain largely unaware that these detailed, nonpartisan reports even exist.
"You know what the public's saying: 'What are you basing your decisions? Why are you doing this? What are you spending our money on?'" Quigley said Tuesday during committee debate. "In many cases, here we are, putting out reports that we're spending $100 million a year on, and we're telling the public, 'Oh, you don't have access to them.'"
Quigley said a "cottage industry" has cropped up to resell CRS reports that taxpayers are already paying for, but aren't getting widespread access to.
"It's time to elevate the debate in this country and allow the public to access the same neutral, unbiased, nonpartisan information that we in Congress rely on every day," Quigley said.
“Here we are, putting out reports that we're spending $100 million a year on, and we're telling the public, 'Oh, you don't have access to them.'”
But the chairman of the Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee, Rep. Tom Graves (R-Ga.), argued that members needed to be "really, really careful with this." He noted that CRS was an arm of Congress, and he didn't want members to be afraid to ask CRS to prepare reports on controversial issues for fear that their requests would become public.
Never mind that the amendment explicitly states this legislation would not apply to reports prepared for individual members of Congress at their request, only to reports that CRS prepares for all members.
Rigell responded to Graves' criticism by noting that he had spoken to administrators at the Library of Congress who said reports prepared for all members were already being made available to lobbyists and special interest groups, who find out about them as soon as they're released to members.
But the ranking Democrat on the Legislative Branch Subcommittee, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), said that wasn't the case. She also said making the reports widely available would slow down the information getting to members.
"I have serious concerns about changing the role that the Congressional Research Service plays," Wasserman Schulz said, arguing that it would not help members to have CRS go through a "long and arduous approval process."
In the video above, debate for the CRS amendment starts at 2:38:00.
Yet as open government advocate Daniel Schuman noted in a post on Medium, CRS reports already go through "an arduous, multi-stage review process because they know the reports will become publicly available."
Ultimately, the full committee voted down the amendment in a roughly party-line vote. All Democrats -- with the exception of Wasserman Schultz and Reps. Nita Lowey (N.Y.), Jose Serrano (N.Y.), Sanford Bishop (Ga.), and Betty McCollum (Minn.) -- voted for the measure. All Republicans -- with the exception of Rigell and Reps. Kevin Yoder (Kan.) and David Young (Iowa) -- voted against it.
The committee also voted down a second amendment from Quigley that would have simply allowed a list of the names of the reports to be published online, with the expectation that a voter who wanted to read a report could contact his or her member of Congress.
Again, Graves and Wasserman Schultz opposed the amendment.
Graves said he was against it "for the same reasons as before," and Wasserman Schultz called the amendment "the nose under the camel's tent."
Quigley, visibly frustrated that members would oppose even publishing the names of CRS reports, summed up Wasserman Schultz's argument this way:
"The nose? Respectfully, if you let the public know a little bit, they're going to want a whole bunch?" Quigley asked incredulously. "Yuck."