Congressional Research Service Products: Purpose and Legislative Histories

Charlie Amiot

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Congressional Research Service (CRS) products, such as CRS Reports and Issue Briefs, are valuable reference tools that can assist reference professionals in providing service to a wide range of patrons and should not be overlooked. This article briefly explains how legislative reference bureaus came into existence and details the early legislative history of the formation of CRS, the federal legislative reference service. This article also explains what products CRS creates and for what purpose. Finally, this article provides a brief legislative history of modern congressional efforts to publicly disseminate CRS products, which includes summaries of public discourse on the subject.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)273-308
Number of pages36
JournalLegal Reference Services Quarterly
Issue number3-4
StatePublished - Oct 2 2018

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
On February 11, S.Res.54 was submitted and was nearly identical to 2001’s S.Res.21; 108 referring to the website that would provide access to the materials, the term “database” was dropped in favor of “system,” and language was removed that had existed in all previous bills and resolutions that prohibited such a website from allowing publicly submitted comments. 109 Commenting on the resolution’s submission, McCain praised CRS, stating that CRS was “well-known for producing high-quality reports and issue briefs that are concise, factual, and unbiased—a rarity in Washington” and again stressed congressional reliance on their written work products and the routine congressional sharing of Reports with constituents. 110 Citing the nonconfidential manner of the Reports, McCain believed they would well serve to educate constituents and highlighted the inequality of those who could access Reports in comparison to the general public, particularly that taxpayers essentially fund the Reports, yet to access timely Reports, they must purchase copies from third-parties. 111 McCain stressed that under S.Res.54, the public would only be able to access Reports through websites maintained by Senators or Senate Committees, allowing those congressional members to choose what they disseminated; regarding costs, McCain pointed to language that placed the burden of website operation and maintenance not on CRS but rather on the Senate Sergeant-at-Arms as well as the requirement of GAO evaluation. 112 McCain also cited letters of public support for the resolution, which were printed in the Record and signed by 30 organizations, including the American Association of Law Libraries, the American Library Association, the Association of Research Libraries, the Congressional Accountability Project, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Federation of American Scientists, the Medical Library Association, and the Project on Government Oversight (PGO). 113 Sen. Leahy also commented on S.Res.54’s submission, praising the expansive work of CRS and stating that the “goal of our bipartisan legislation is to allow every citizen the same access to the wealth of CRS information as a Member of Congress enjoys today.” 114 Speaking to the inequality of access, Leahy pointed to a PGO report that stated that over 150 former congressional members who were registered lobbyists received automatic access to CRS products, whereas average citizens had to purchase copies. 115 On November 21, H.R.3630 was submitted and contained nearly identical language to that of 1999’s H.R.654, 116 with the exception of a new requirement that such a website should be searchable; H.R.3630 did not mention providing an index of the site’s material. 117 CRS, while still maintaining their previous positions on the subject, expanded their rhetoric on public dissemination via an internal memo. 118 By then all members had the ability to selectively disseminate online official versions of certain nonconfidential CRS products to noncongressional users; CRS discouraged wholesale online public dissemination of Reports, concerned that doing so might put CRS in a position where they would have to directly answer constituents, against CRS’ mission. 119 The memo also expressed concerns that included a loss of protection under the Speech or Debate Clause; a potential shift in CRS’ mission of directly serving Congress with the introduction of a public audience; and that widespread public dissemination could potentially generate signification public input, burdening both Congress and requiring further CRS response through Congress, consuming both groups’ finite resources. 120

Publisher Copyright:
© 2019, Published with license by Taylor & Francis. © 2019, © Charlie Amiot.


  • CRS Reports
  • Congress
  • Congressional Research Services
  • Legislative Reference Service
  • Library of Congress
  • government documents
  • issue briefs
  • legislative history
  • legislative reference bureau
  • reference tools

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Library and Information Sciences
  • Law


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