Much will be written following the death of Sen. John S. McCain, the vast bulk of it of with sincere admiration for his personal courage and service to his country. I am among those admirers. His life was undeniably colorful– he was very much human. Equally undeniable was the magnitude of his service to his nation. He knew where his duty lay, and he gave palpably more than any critic to honor that obligation. He knew the difference between patriotism and nationalism or partisanism. Compared to his legislative peers, it is fair to say that few or none have displayed greater loyalty to the common good of our nation as opposed to any political party. In any world– but certainly in today’s political climate– he was a lion among sheep.
What Are CRS Reports?
I interacted with his Senate office one time in 1998 during my Congressional Fellowship and service to the Senate Finance Committee. Senator McCain filed a typically bi-partisan bill that would make most of the reports and issue-briefs prepared by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) available to the public. At the time, I had never heard of these. CRS reports are among those prepared by the Library of Congress, often in response to requests by federal legislators for background information about current or potential legislation. I had hundreds of these available to me at my networked desk in a Senate office building. The resources of the Library are stunning. The academician in me recognized these reports and issue briefs as extraordinarily useful. They are well researched, and clearly written in language that can be understood by non-technical people. Best of all, these reports are as balanced and nonpartisan as anything can possibly be on Capitol Hill. (The worst service a legislative aid can give their member is not to include all sides of an argument in their briefing.) I downloaded and read as many reports related to healthcare matters as I could find, constantly regretting that I had not had them available earlier as I began a second career in health policy research.
Why shouldn’t the public have the same information used by lawmakers?
It seemed like a no-brainer to me, but when I saw that the bill was going nowhere fast, I called the Senator’s office to find out what was happening. I was amazed (but should not have been) to find that there was considerable opposition to the bill’s passage. I have long forgotten the name of the legislative aide whom I spoke with, but I was told there was some concern from the Library of Congress itself about copyright or attribution issues, but also that individual legislators like to give the reports out individually and selectively to constituents as something that is otherwise very difficult to obtain. (The CRS Office may also have had legitimate concerns about their budget should their work cross some disgruntled legislator or their donating constituent who didn’t like what they read!) There was nothing specifically illegal about making CRS reports public – various advocacy groups would place them on their websites. These-tax payer-funded reports could even be purchased from private third parties. As I learned more during my service as a government affairs officer about how our electoral and legislative systems work, my personal conclusion was that at least some legislators do not want their constituents to hear both sides of current issues! The bill failed.
Let this effort be the last!
Until today, I did not follow up on my disappointment. I learned that several more unsuccessful attempts were made to require that these publicly funded and non-confidential documents be made available directly from the Library of Congress. A few individuals and organizations make efforts to assemble as many CRS reports as possible on their non-governmental websites. (I do not know how complete these collections are or how the reports are obtained.) A glimmer of hope has just arrived within the 2232-page Consolidated Appropriations Bill of 2018. In pages 1092 through 1104 is a section titled, “Equal Access to Congressional Research Service Reports.” It requires the Library of Congress to make available on its website all eligible reports and issue briefs in a form “that is searchable, sortable, and downloadable, including downloadable in bulk.” Seemingly reasonable attention is given to potential exceptions to general publication. The Library has ninety days after passage to get going after final passage. That hasn’t happened yet!
A request to Congress.
Members of Congress have a history of defunding or blocking laws they do not like, and I will believe the promises made in the Appropriations Act when I see them happen. Senator and Captain John S. McCain has and will receive many honors. I would like to propose another. Following his tradition of working with legislators and individuals with different political positions, and perhaps even in his name, I ask now of all current members of the House and Senate (including my representatives from Kentucky) to make sure that the promises made in the Appropriation Act come to fruition in both detail and spirit– and expeditiously. Efforts will likely be made by some of your peers or supporters to reverse or otherwise block this eminently reasonable initiative. Do not allow these to succeed. Perhaps the best way to get our deliberately divided nation talking civilly to each other is to provide the same accurate, balanced, and truthful information to the public that you use every day in making our laws. We of the public need to see these reports more now than ever. Better our information come from the Library of Congress than from Russia or other entities that seek to confuse and divide us!
Respectfully, and in admiration of a man who, short of giving his mortal life, gave more than most in service to his country.
Peter Hasselbacher, MD
Emeritus Professor of Medicine, UofL
26 August 2018
As examples of CRS reports that I think should be broadly shared, I will make available below a few relevant to health policy (when I can find them in my archives!). Those I have were prepared in the late 1990s. We were having much the same debate then over healthcare that we are having now. I think you will agree even these older reports are both relevant and valuable. For starters, here is a current CRS Report about Medicare’s Part-D Drug Benefit Program.
[Addendum 1 Sept 2018: This article was altered after it was pointed out to me that the Consolidated Appropriations Bill of 2018 has passed only in the House, and not yet in the Senate. Every opportunity remains for the CRS Report language to be modified or stripped from the current version of the Bill or whatever replaces it. Believers in full and fair disclosure may be disappointed again.]