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It is 8:47PM on a Tuesday night. Your chairman is set to hold an oversight hearing the next morning, and you need a specific piece of information on the costs of a dubious government project to ask one of the witnesses a hard-hitting question. You know this information exists. It’s in a report that was requested and received by another congressional committee last year. It’s almost certainly sitting in a messy digital folder or under a pile of other reports, endless drafts of legislation, and the world’s greatest kindling — unsolicited lobbyist materials. You are friends with several people on the other committee, and you’ve written them several emails and left several voicemails over the past two weeks, asking politely for a copy of the report. No dice. They’re writing a big bill and working 14-hour days. You’ve been there, you know you’re a low priority. The hearing goes fine, but your senator can’t ask the key question, because you don’t have the information from that report. The executive branch once again skates by.
In Washington, information is the coin of the realm. The key to effective congressional oversight lies in the ability to obtain and wield information to hold the executive branch to account — and Congress has a problem with sharing information. Sometimes it’s a turf issue; can’t legislate that away. But most of the time, it’s just the way Capitol Hill does business. Congressional staff remain outnumbered, overworked, and underpaid. The process by which crucial executive branch reports are processed is fragmented and inefficient. Congress requests and receives thousands of reports from the executive branch each year, but does not place those reports in a centralized, public repository.
Introduced by Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) and Rep. Mike Quigley (D-IL), the Access to Congressionally Mandated Reports Act (ACMRA) elegantly fixes this problem by requiring all executive branch reports to Congress to be posted in a central online location where congressional staff, outside researchers, and interested citizens can easily find them. This site, run by the Government Printing Office, would give Congress and the public alike easy access to taxpayer-funded government reports with troves of interesting material. Reports containing classified or national security-sensitive information would be redacted, per Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requirements.
How important is the information in these reports to congressional oversight? Over just the past month, major news stories have centered around the information Congress receives from the executive branch — statistics about civilian casualties in drone strikes, a statutorily required report on accountability for Jamal Khashoggi’s death, and a list of military construction projects vulnerable to pilfering following the president’s emergency declaration.
Making all executive branch reports to Congress public follows in the footsteps of the DATA Act and the ongoing effort to get all taxpayer-funded Congressional Research Service reports into the open. Critics may argue that expanding the audience of these reports could lead the executive branch to include less relevant information in them. However, any watering down of these reports would almost certainly lead to more aggressive oversight from the original requesting committees or members, a dynamic that frequently plays out daily in the struggle for power between the legislative and executive branches. And while committees might object to the loss of “exclusivity” of these reports, Congress should not let internal turf battles get in the way of more effective oversight of the executive branch.
ACMRA is a bipartisan, bicameral, and uncontroversial bill. It already passed the House as a part of H.R. 1 after spending much of the 115th Congress stalled over petty turf fights. The legislation carries bipartisan support, as it has for years, including co-sponsors Sens. Klobuchar (D-MN) and Hassan (D-NH) in the Senate and Reps. Davis (R-IL) and Foxx (R-NC) in the House. It recently passed out of committee in the Senate, putting it on the path to passage.
It doesn’t sound like much, but making phone calls and writing emails every time you need to read a report you don’t have is a massive waste of time. It’s the congressional equivalent of spending hours on the phone with insurance companies or utilities customer service reps. It just makes you want to scream. If ACMRA saves an hour a week for the roughly 13,000 congressional staff, the efficiency savings in more productive man-hours would be in the millions of dollars. Passing ACMRA represents a small, but effective step toward improving the ability of Congress to represent the people and conduct effective oversight of an ever-more powerful executive branch.
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