The Congressional Research Service (CRS) does what its name implies: its conducts research on issues of legislative or governmental importance for Congress, much like a think tank. CRS research reports are highly regarded for being even-handed, accurate, in-depth, and timely. They reflect high-quality research and vetted, reliable information on a vast array of topics.
Some CRS publications are confidential (often referred to as CRS memoranda rather than reports), but thousands of reports are not. Nonetheless, they are, as a matter of policy, not made available to the public by the CRS except on request. To complicate matters, no comprehensive list of titles is made available either, so members of the public cannot know whether a report on a particular topic of interest exists.
This is not to say that people can’t find CRS reports. You can buy reports from resellers such as Penny Hill Press, which claims to have all reports published since 1995, but no one likes paying for information already paid for by tax dollars. Fortunately, organizations such as the Federation of American Scientists have made large collections available to anyone at no charge. Wikileaks released nearly 7,000 CRS reports in 2009, and many other reports exist at government and other internet websites. But these collections are incomplete. OpenCRS, a project of the Center for Democracy & Technology, tried to build a comprehensive, freely available collection but was shuttered in 2014.
Over the years, and most recently in 2015, legislators have introduced bills to allow open access to CRS reports. In August 2015, a letter signed by many organizations and individuals who favor open government access to information was sent to members of Congress urging them to make non-confidential reports readily and freely available. In October, former CRS employees issued a second letter echoing these pleas. Why then does Congress and the CRS continue to limit access to CRS reports?
There are several reasons. Since the 1950s, the CRS has been statutorily prohibited from using money to “publish” its work unless exceptions were approved by oversight committees. Also, as a matter of policy, the CRS has stated that it wants to protect its employees from public pressure and questioning. As it stands now, the authors of CRS materials are protected under the Speech and Debate Clause, but there is concern that this protection would be breachable if the CRS published its materials for the public rather than for Congress. In addition, with the public as an acknowledged audience, the content of CRS reports may shift from its primary role, rendering them less useful to Congress.
Of course, CRS authors can already be subjected to pressure from their audience—members of Congress—and this can affect the work they produce. Kevin Kosar, a former CRS researcher, wrote a fascinating article for Washington Monthly early in 2015 in which he talks about the chill felt in the CRS when members of highly partisan Congresses criticize CRS authors and use CRS materials to lambaste the other side in the media. Kosar thinks that public access to CRS reports would help alleviate (warning: annoying GIFS) this situation since the public would be able to make its own determinations about Congressional debates and actions based on the same information. He provides many other reasons for open, free public access as well.
Given our current political climate, I suspect that CRS reports will remain restricted, at least in theory, for the foreseeable future. In the meantime, here a few sites where you can search for CRS reports.
If you know the title of a particular report, you can always try Google as well.