Testimony of Gary Ruskin,
Director of the Congressional Accountability Project,
Before the Committee on Rules and Administration,
United States Senate,
Oversight Hearing on the Congressional Research Service, Government Printing Office and the National Gallery,
February 27, 1998.
 

Thank you for allowing the Congressional Accountability Project to submit this testimony to the Committee on Rules and Administration's oversight hearing on the Congressional Research Service (CRS) and the Government Printing Office (GPO).

Today I want to talk about what the Senate Rules Committee and Congress can do to make government information more easily available to the public.

The Internet is an efficient and inexpensive way to distribute government information to the public. The marginal cost of offering a government document over the Internet is essentially zero. The federal government can employ this technology to inform the public and increase the openness and transparency of our democracy. Regrettably, the federal government has been slow to place some of the most useful and important government documents on the Internet.

We urge you to approve legislation sponsored by Senators John McCain and Dan Coats to put CRS reports and products on the Internet. This excellent bill would give citizens timely access to CRS reports on scores of important issues pending before the Congress. Citizens, scholars, journalists, librarians, and businesses have long wanted easy access to CRS reports.

Taxpayers ought to be able to read the research that they pay for. But taxpayers cannot obtain most CRS reports directly. Instead, we must purchase them from private vendors, or engage in the burdensome and time-consuming process of requesting these reports from a Member of Congress. Often, citizens must wait weeks or even months before such a request is filled. This barrier to obtaining CRS reports serves no useful purpose, and limits citizens' ability to participate in the congressional legislative process.

The McCain-Coats bill (S. 1578) and the House companion bill sponsored by Reps. Chris Shays and David Price (H.R. 3131) are endorsed by a broad and unusual coalition, including the Congressional Accountability Project, Common Cause, 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.(1)

The McCain-Coats and Shays-Price bills have received enthusiastic editorial support from newspapers across the country, including Houston Chronicle, Arizona Republic, Dallas Morning News, Indianapolis Star, and Hartford Courant.(2)

The Congressional Research Service has expressed some concerns about placing its reports on the Internet. CRS worries that broader dissemination of its products could "imperil" its claim of constitutional immunity under the Speech or Debate Clause, which could expose CRS to libel, slander, and copyright infringement actions, and might bring on litigation that could endanger the confidentiality of CRS files.

These arguments are strained and unpersuasive. The caselaw arising out of the Speech or Debate Clause is strong enough to prevent the success of any such suits. After examining the CRS memorandum on this issue, former General Counsel to the House of Representatives Stanley M. Brand wrote "I believe that the concerns expressed in the CRS memorandum are either overstated, or to the extent they are not, provide no basis for arguing that protection of CRS works will be weakened by your bill."(3) Regarding CRS's claim that its legislative immunity might be weakened if CRS reports are placed on the Internet, Brand concluded that "This fear is simply unfounded." After examining these issues, we reached similar conclusions.(4) We do, however, believe that it would be best if CRS reports were disseminated via the Internet by an entity other than CRS, preferably the GPO Access and Thomas Internet services, to ensure adequate institutional separation between the constitutionally protected advisory function of CRS, and the constitutionally less protected "informing" function of Congress and GPO.

* * *

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. Several newspaper editorials and articles have highlighted how Congress has been slow to put Congressional documents on the Internet.(5) At a minimum, Congress should put on the Internet, via GPO Access and Thomas:

All texts of bills and amendments. Congress should put on the Internet all texts of bills as soon as they are printed or made available to lobbyists or members of a committee or subcommittee. The most important texts of bills -- discussion drafts, chairmans marks, managers marks, committee prints - are rarely placed on the Internet. So, while Washington lobbyists read the relevant drafts of bills, most American can only obtain antiquated versions. This two-tiered distribution provides great political advantages to Washington lobbyists, and hurts the ability of most citizens to advocate on their own behalf.

Voting records. Access to voting records is cornerstone of democratic accountability. Congress ought to make it easy for citizens to obtain congressional voting records. Yet, Congress has not created an easily searchable Internet database of congressional voting records, indexed by bill name, bill subject, bill title, Member name, etc. Such a database would be easy to produce and inexpensive to maintain. Congress should establish and maintain an easily searchable Internet database of congressional voting records.

Corrected and uncorrected hearing records and written testimony. Congress invites experts and scholars of varied political viewpoints to testify about the weighty issues facing our country, and the world. These hearings are of great interest and value. They are a treasure trove of useful facts, information, thoughts, and opinions. But few congressional hearing records have been placed on the Internet. Congress should place all congressional hearing records and written testimony on the Internet.

Lobbyist disclosure reports. The Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995 requires collection of valuable information on lobbyists' activities. These reports disclose who pays whom how much to lobby on what issues. These reports are already computerized, but are only available at the House Legislative Resource Center and the Senate Office of Public Records. These computer files should be placed on the Internet.

Financial disclosure reports. Just like lobbyist disclosure reports, congressional financial disclosure reports are also computerized in the House and Senate, but only the most recent reports are available via the Internet - on the Center for Responsive Politics website. Congress should place on the Internet congressional financial disclosure reports for at least the previous six years.

Draft committee and conference reports. Just as draft texts of bills should be on the Internet, so should draft committee and conference reports. Much of what lobbyists do in Washington is to insert provisions in a committee or conference report. Such provisions can often have great impact on the way a law is carried out, or how government funding is distributed. Draft committee and conference reports should be on the Internet, so citizens can read them, and figure out what the lobbyists have done.

The law. Federal court decisions are difficult for many citizens to obtain. They are available in expensive bound volumes from West Publishing, from law libraries, and from high-priced computer assisted legal research services, such as Lexis-Nexis, and Westlaw. West Publishing is the only comprehensive publisher of federal and state court decisions. West claims copyright over the page numbers and corrected text of court decisions in its West court reporters. This is splendid for West, which makes ample profits by selling the text of the law back to Americans, while, not coincidentally, protecting its monopoly with generous campaign contributions to the Democratic Party.(6) But this is bad for Americans who want to read the law. Some U. S. Supreme Court decisions are now available through GPO Access, and law schools have placed some federal appellate court decisions on the Internet. That is an improvement but is insufficient; citizens should be able to easily obtain and read the law.

One year ago today, U.S. District Court Judge Paul Friedman approved the sale of West Publishing to Thomson Publishing, of Canada. So, the only complete electronic database of U.S. federal court decisions is now "owned" by a foreign corporation - and is not on the Internet.

We Americans ought to have easy access to the laws that we are supposed to obey. We should not have to visit a faraway law library - or subscribe to an expensive online service - just to find out what the law is. All federal court decisions since the founding of the United States should be on the Internet, using a public citation system.

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The federal government has two agencies which provide central access to executive branch documents -- the GPO and the Department of Commerce's National Technical Information Service (NTIS). GPO is designed to provide free or low cost access to government information. NTIS has a deeply flawed mission, which includes charging extremely high prices for government documents. NTIS often charges what the market will bear for many government publications, while GPO is committed to the broadest public dissemination of government information.

In our view, the digital revolution has created an opportunity to greatly enhance the public's access to government information. In order to take advantage of this opportunity, Congress should allocate more resources to agencies, like GPO, which are helping to open up the government and empower citizens.

The Government Printing Office's Internet service, GPO Access, is by far the best source for federal government information. It is an enormous success. According to GPO, during the last six months (Aug.'97-Jan. '98) GPO Access received nearly 9.5 million requests for federal government information -- more than double the number of requests for information through the Library of Congress Internet service Thomas. As more people use the Internet, and more federal government documents are made available over the Internet, the importance of GPO Access will likely increase.

GPO Access improves the openness and transparency of our federal government. We strongly urge the Rules Committee to strengthen and expand this popular program.

The popularity of GPO Access and Thomas is a sign of the robustness of our democracy and an affirmation of the wishes of many Americans to engage in civic pursuits. 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. We strongly urge you to act quickly to put the most important federal government documents on the Internet.


Endnotes

1. Correspondence to The Honorable John McCain and The Honorable Daniel Coats from the Congressional Accountability Project, 26 January 1998. Correspondence to the Honorable Christopher Shays and The Honorable David Price, 2 February 1998. See Attachment #1.

2. "Put the Research on the Internet." The Hartford Courant, 20 February 1998. "Opening Government." The Indianapolis Star, 18 February 1998. "Cyber Democracy: Research Should be Available to the Public." The Dallas Morning News, 17 February 1998. "More Access Online: Fulfilling a Pledge." The Arizona Republic, 10 February 1998. "On Line: Make Congressional Research More Accessible on 'Net." Houston Chronicle, 10 February 1998. Attachment #2 also includes Charles Levendosky, "Make Reports to Congress Available to Public." Casper Star-Tribune, 8 February 1998.

3. Correspondence to The Honorable John McCain from Stanley M. Brand, 27 January 1998. See Attachment #3.

4. Memorandum from the Congressional Accountability Project RE: Placing Congressional Research Service Products on the Internet, 5 January 1998. See Attachment #4.

5. Darren Goode, "High-Tech Malaise? Congress Still Lags in Putting Key Information on the Internet." Roll Call, 1 December 1997. Gary Ruskin, "America Off-Line: Gingrich's Unfulfilled Internet Promise." The Washington Post, 16 November 1997. "Watching Congress: Time to Renew Gingrich's Vow." Minneapolis Star Tribune, 13 November 1997. "Net Now, Newt." Austin American-Statesman, 11 November 1997. "Furnishing the Internet." The Washington Post, 8 November 1997. "Congress is Slow to Let Public Log On." San Jose Mercury News, 7 November 1997. See Attachment #5.

6. Viveca Novak and Michael Weisskopf, "The Cheerful Giver." Time, April 21, 1997. See Attachment #6.