Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Transparent Government Is A Little Opaque

Established in 1914 by legislation enacted by Congress, the Legislative Reference Service was born and signed into law by former President Woodrow Wilson. Intended to be a research service for members of Congress, it evolved over the years into much more than just another arm of the Library of Congress.

The LRS underwent a name change in 1970 due to it's expanding role in helping to shape legislation. Called the Congressional Research Service, it's functions were to obtain information on the legalities, effectiveness, and ordinary citizen reaction to proposed bills and amendments. With taxpayers footing the bill for the CRS's 700 plus employees to the tune of around $100 million per year, one would think it reasonable to expect the public to have access to the research that was done and how decisions that affect every American were arrived at, but that is not the case. In fact, attempting to glean information from the CRS is akin to pulling teeth with a pair of tweezers.

Although the public at large has access to Thomas, the Congressional website that provides information on legislative sessions, there is no Internet access to the CRS, and it would seem that's the way our government likes it. Repeated attempts to force the CRS to be open to public scrutiny have been met with fierce resistance from both the CRS itself and by some members of Congress, who see the CRS as an extension of their offices. It should be noted that Senators John McCain and Patrick Leahy have offered bipartisan legislation and support to the release of CRS information to the public via the Internet.

If you're wondering why having access to CRS information is so important in a transparent government that is supposed to serve the People and not the other way around, then one must also understand that what members of Congress base their voting decisions on, come directly from the Congressional Research Service. Issues dealing with the interpretation of American Law, Domestic Social Policies, Foreign Affairs, Defense, Trade, Finance, National Resources, Science and Industry.

Things that effect every American and the quality of life of every citizen are debated in secret, with the conclusions reached that are signed into law never being allowed to be scrutinized by the very taxpayers who pay for this service. And so when mistakes in interpretation are made, or erroneous information makes it's way into a bill, the bill gets signed into law, mistakes and all, and the only ones with the authority to go back and research the mistakes, if they are discovered, are the very same people who put forth the wrong information in the first place.

Even with the constant pressure from organizations such as The Project For Government Oversight and the Sunlight Foundation, changes are slow in coming and contested bitterly by those in Congress and the White House, who would rather keep the public in the dark when it comes to the running of our government. But what galls every citizen who becomes aware of the existence of the Congressional Research Service is that although publicly funded, and attempts by both Congress and the CRS to maintain it's secrecy, corporations are allowed access to CRS reports, which they then promptly turn around and sell to lobbyists in order to give them an inside track of what's going on inside the halls of our Capitol.

Not galling enough for you? Try this. Former members of Congress who go to work for lobbying firms have unfettered access to current CRS reports, reports they use to the advantage of the corporations that hire them. If an average citizen that is aware of the existence of CRS wants a copy of a report, well somehow the Freedom Of Information Act doesn't apply to the CRS. But Lexis and Westlaw will sell you a copy of any report you like, for the lowly fee of $7.95 per report, provided of course you are a 'member' to the tune of several hundred dollars per year.

So get this straight now. We the taxpayers foot the bill for the Congressional Research Service but are not allowed to read and critique what they do. But lobbyists and corporations are allowed access, and are allowed to turn around and sell you the information they obtained. Former Congressional Members have access to current reports, but you don't.

In an attempt to soothe the uproar from transparent government groups, the White House had the State Department start putting up selected and redacted versions of some CRS reports. the problem is that when you go to the State Department website to take a look, all of the reports that are posted as NEW are from 2001 to 2006, with only six reports from the year 2006, and nothing past that.

What is the big secret? And why is the taxpayer required to fund a completely separate branch of Congress that we are then told we are not allowed to see? The only way to find out the answers and to acquire the dream of a transparent government that works for the People and not the corporations is for the public to demand that CRS reports be available to all, not just those who can further personal ambitions and profit from what should be public information. Contact Senator Leahy's office and the office of Senator McCain and tell them this issue is important to the American people. Let them know you are willing to support their bill to open the government to public scrutiny. Seek out the organizations named above and others like them and if nothing else, sign a petition, write a letter of encouragement, and if possible, drop a few dollars their way.

There are soldiers dying and soldiers who have died trying to preserve the United States. They fought and fight for freedom, not so the government can do in secret the things they would never even contemplate putting before the masses first. Transparent government means just that. Like a window, not like a filthy, rusty screen covered pane of glass that no one can see through. See who supports this open government legislation in Congress and who doesn't. Those who don't can be easily voted out of office in favor of a person more favorable towards the People. Because in the end, this is OUR government, not theirs. It's OUR money that they spend so freely, not theirs. And freedom includes the ability to know what the government is up to, and how they are going about the People's business. Demand public access to the Congressional Research Services database, and it can be a first step to restoring the governemnt's power back where it belongs. With we the People.

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