Lawmaker wants documents made available to taxpayers; Price would extend Congress research arm’s use to public

WASHINGTON — They are the personal research librarians for members of Congress, and Rep. David Price wants you to be able to check them out.

The Congressional Research Service, an arm of the Library of Congress, has been in business since 1914. Last year it issued 250,000 copies of reports on major issues.

Members of Congress rely heavily on the highly detailed documents, which provide history and policy alternatives on issues ranging from Medicare to political refugees. Lawmakers can request a study to help them do homework before voting on bills or speaking on issues.

Although taxpayers fund the research service, its documents are for lawmakers eyes only – something Price, a Democrat from Chapel Hill, and Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., want changed.

“Government shouldn’t be a mystery to the people who are footing the bill,” Price said. “Let’s give the public access to the same information members of Congress use to craft legislation and make policy decisions.”

Currently, lawmakers often send copies of research service reports, which are highly regarded for their balance and impartiality, to citizens looking for better understanding on issues. But the practice means more work for and less efficient responses from congressional staffs.

Price said he already gets 30 to 35 requests for information a month from residents of the 4th District, from think tanks working on policy issues to college students working on term papers.

A bill introduced last year by Shays and Price asked that the service open its current Web site -to which only members have access — to the general public to reduce paper, postage and staff time. But the broad request brought concerns from the research service that it would be held liable for the content of the reports that lawmakers had requested and that some information included in them might be copyrighted.

Research service officials also were concerned that the new policy would increase their staff time, according to a policy statement. As a result, it never reached a vote.

On Tuesday, Price and Shays reintroduced legislation that would make the site available by links on individual lawmakers’ sites, thereby reducing the service’s liability.

But Price said the House and Senate, through their respective steering committees, can order the service to go public without an act of Congress.

“We don’t think any legal authorization is required,” Price said after an Appropriations Committee hearing Wednesday. “They have the authority already, and if you grant the CRS $100,000 and tell them this is how it is to be spent, they can go ahead and do it.”

The $100,000 would help with initial technological setup costs of linking the site and would help the research service hire manpower for the effort. But it would not help alleviate all of the service’s concerns.

“We basically have to do whatever Congress tells us to do,” said Hugh Elsbree, associate director for policy compliance. “So we don’t have an official position on this.”

But Elsbree said the service is concerned that the language in their reports, tailored for people experienced with legal terms, may have to be adapted for public use.

He also said members of Congress may create more work for his staff by requesting more research be made confidential and that the staff might spend too much time on customer-service issues with the public.

Herald-Sun, The (Durham, NC) Date: February 11, 1999 Page: C4 Copyright, 1999, The Durham Herald Company