Practically no one actually read that 2,232-page spending bill that Congress passed recently, and that President Trump reluctantly signed into law. But right around Page 1,100, there was a little-noticed triumph for two things in short supply these days: facts and expertise.
The bill lifted a 64-year-old ban that prevented the highly respected, nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, which is the legislative branch’s in-house think tank, from sharing its massive store of knowledge with the public. The service, which is part of the Library of Congress, cranks out more than 3,000 reports every year examining policy proposals, how well government agencies are working, and background material on judicial and other nominees. Its work represents some of the most thorough and unbiased analysis around.
And amazingly, despite the fact that taxpayers spend more than $100 million a year to pay for what CRS does, they have had no way to get regular access to reports that its staff of 500 produces on topics that range from nuclear weapons to estate taxes to political developments in Azerbaijan. This information was available only to members of Congress, on a haphazard basis to insiders like lobbyists and reporters who know where to look and which congressional offices to ask, and through a cottage industry of commercial services that charge subscribers hundreds of dollars a year. In 2009, WikiLeaks created a sensation by publishing 6,780 CRS reports.
Withholding CRS’ work from the public dates back to 1954. It stemmed not from a concern not over transparency, but rather the cost of making “photostatic” copies. “I can see how that kind of analysis would be in great demand by newspapers and women’s clubs, and so forth, and unless put on some compensatory basis would run to quite an expenditure,” argued its advocate, Sen. Karl E. Mundt, R-South Dakota.
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In the Internet era, of course, that makes no sense at all. But Congress being Congress, change comes slowly. Sens. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vermont, and John McCain, R-Arizona, began working 15 years ago to make CRS’ nonconfidential reports public. Over the years, the idea got bipartisan support in the House, led by Mike Quigley, D-Illinois, and Leonard Lance, R-New Jersey, and from librarians and open-government advocates. As the omnibus spending bill was working its way toward passage, Leahy took advantage of his position as vice chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee to slip the language into the legislation.
Giving everyone access to the same facts that Congress has is a small step, perhaps, given the assault on truth that has come to define the political culture. But it’s a welcome one — and long, long overdue.
Karen Tumulty is a Washington Post columnist covering national politics.