Originally created 08/16/98

Think tank not too well known



If you've never heard of a think tank called the Congressional Research Service, you are not alone.

It employs about 741 people and issues about 3,000 reports and updates to reports each year. Its annual budget, about $62 million a year, is paid for by U.S. taxpayers.

The researchers at the Congressional Research Service, some of the best employed by the federal government, officially work for members and committees of Congress.

Several years ago, when making government documents available on the Internet was the topic of the moment, the CRS reports were mentioned as being exactly the type of information people should be able to access through the Internet.

After a brief explosion of access and information, the pace for making government more open through the Internet has slowed considerably, according to Gary Ruskin, who runs the Congressional Accountability Project, a Ralph Nader affiliate that monitors Congress and has made Net availability of government documents an important issue.

"We're still basically nowhere on this issue," Ruskin said recently. "It's a problem a lot of governments across the world are wrestling with. We still have Congress clutching the most important documents."

Ruskin includes the CRS reports in the group of documents that aren't yet widely available on the Net. In theory, the reports are available to the public. You simply have to ask your member of Congress.

But there's often a long wait involved. Ruskin, for one, has waited for months for his reports to arrive.

Another problem also arises. How, for example, can a citizen request the 18-page report on the feasibility of space stations, which was recently updated June 12, if they don't know the report exists?

Even the most updated list of available CRS reports is itself a report and must be asked for specifically.

"Too few citizens are aware that they are funding the extraordinary talent and research that the CRS does every day," said Rep. Paul McHale, D-Pa., who co-sponsored a bill that would place CRS reports on the Internet. Because of these problems, McHale gets few requests for CRS reports from his constituents.

McHale and other members of Congress get daily updates on which CRS reports have been issued and can download the full text of the reports on their in-house computer system. But that system can't be accessed by computers outside congressional jurisdiction.

The logjam with the CRS reports has helped create a private, Web-based publishing company, Penny Hill Press. For $190 a year, subscribers get a monthly newsletter and access to sections of Penny Hill's subscriber-only Web site, which offers abstracts of all available reports and updates. Almost all of the reports are in the public domain, so they can be freely reprinted and copied.

"I'm an expert at finding information in Washington," said Walt Seager, Penny Hill's publisher. "The reason I started this is because there was no way of finding out what was available" through CRS.

Most of the major media companies, all of the television networks, some newspapers, foreign governments and dozens of law firms subscribe to his service, Seager said. Many government agencies also are among his subscribers because those agencies have a harder time getting CRS reports than the average citizen, Seager said.

Seager would welcome the wide availability of CRS reports on the Internet. "That would be great. It's the right thing to do. I'll be 60 in October, so I'll just retire early," Seager said.

Chances for the bill passing this session are "poor," McHale said, "mostly because the clock is ticking. But I think the seed has been planted for enactment during the next legislative session.

"There is absolutely no reason to think that anyone will be able to hold back the dam of public inquiry into the indefinite future. I think there is a misjudgment in the attempt to limit access. The degree of misjudgment will become obvious in the years ahead."

McHale said CRS officials have told him they fear that instantaneous, worldwide availability of the reports might jeopardize the relationship between researchers and their main clients: members of Congress.

CRS officials also have expressed a fear that the reports might open CRS researchers to some form of civil liability, although McHale said he thinks that the chances of winning such a lawsuit are slim. Congress, in any case, has the power to exempt CRS researchers from civil actions, if this were to become a problem, McHale said.

For the time being, people can log onto the public sections of the Penny Hill Press Web site at www.pennyhill.com and see a relatively recent listing of CRS reports. The public sections of the reports are updated four times a year.

The full reports from Penny Hill Press also are available to non-subscribers, but at a cost. For $49, a non-subscriber can receive up to five reports. The Maryland-based company does have discounts for students, who pay $19 for each report.