Congress considers placing government research online

Monday, May 4, 1998

Some of the most valuable congressional resources in existence soon could be making their way onto the World Wide Web, says an attorney for the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

The U.S. Senate Committee on Rules and Administration is currently deciding whether to bring to a vote legislation sponsored by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Dan Coats, R-Ind.

Senate Bill 1578 would make materials drafted by the Congressional Research Service, a division of the Library of Congress, available on the Internet. CRS materials, drafted in response to questions posed by Congress, are currently only available via a request by a constituent to his or her congressman or through a request made to printing companies that critics say often charge inflated rates.

The bill is supported by a broad coalition of citizens, scholars, journalists, librarians and businesses. ASNE and other press organizations such as the Society of Professional Journalists, the National Newspaper Association, and the Newspaper Association of America, have written a letter expressing support for bill.

First Amendment attorney Kevin M. Goldberg said that because CRS documents are nonpartisan records they are considered very objective and therefore carry a good deal of weight. Goldberg works with the Washington, D.C.,-based law firm, Cohn and Marks, which serves as counsel to ASNE.

“This research is the basis for a lot decisions on Capitol Hill so it's also another way for the public to see what materials lawmakers are using to make their decisions,” Goldberg said.

“In order to agree or disagree with decisions made in Congress we need to know all of the information that's available to them, or at the very least the information that's most important to them,” he said.

The Congressional Accountability Project, a congressional reform group affiliated with consumer advocate Ralph Nader, is also a leading proponent of the legislation.

CAP Director Gary Ruskin said: “This bill would give citizens quick and timely access to some of the best research the federal government produces. It would help citizens understand the issues and become a more informed electorate. And, likely, produce better policy out of our Congress.”

The Congressional Research Service, Ruskin said, is concerned that broader dissemination of its products could expose it to libel, slander and copyright infringement actions, and might bring on litigation that could endanger the confidentiality of its files.

Goldberg said CRS may feel that an increase in research requests “would put undue burden on their resources.”

Daniel Mulhollan, CRS director, was unavailable for comment.

In testifying at a Rules and Administration Committee oversight hearing in February, Ruskin called CRS's concerns “strained and unpersuasive.”

“Congress should provide the American public with the same access to congressional documents as Washington lobbyists, so that all citizens have equal access to the materials which they need to advocate on behalf of their own interests, and to carry out their civic duties and responsibilities,” Ruskin said.

“We ought to do what we can to make it easier for Americans to participate constructively in the democratic process. Placing the most important and useful federal government documents on the Internet would reduce the barriers to obtaining government information which make it difficult for so many Americans to gain a detailed understanding of what the federal government is doing,” he said.

The measure is endorsed by a coalition that includes CAP, Common Cause, the League of Women Voters of the United States, American Conservative Union, National Association of Manufacturers, Business Software Alliance, IBM Corporation, America Online Inc., Netscape Communications Corp., Intel Corp. and many others.