• Congress has an information-sharing problem, according to American Enterprise Scholar Rick Berger, and the Access to Congressionally Mandated Reports Act could help fix it.
  • The bill would require the Government Printing Office to create a central online location where all executive branch reports to Congress would be posted.
  • Having these reports readily available to congressional staff could have an immediate and tangible impact on Congress’ ability to exercise oversight.

Challenges to Congressional Oversight

It may be one of the widest gaps between public perception and reality: Americans assume that Congress isn’t working well because it doesn’t want to work, when in fact Congress is dysfunctional because it lacks the resources and institutional capacity to work well.

That, at least, was the conclusion of a 2017 report from the Congressional Management Foundation (CMF) analyzing congressional staff perspectives on the institutional capacity of the House and Senate. After surveying senior congressional staff, author Kathy Goldschmidt, Director of Strategic Initiatives at CMF, came to a number of notable findings. She argued that Congress needs to improve staff knowledge, skills and abilities; Senators and Representatives lack the necessary time and resources to understand, consider and deliberate public policy and legislation; Congress needs to modernize its technological infrastructure; and Congress should re-examine its capacity to perform its role in democracy.

One factor in this system that contributes to the poor functioning of Congress, according to American Enterprise scholar Rick Berger, is that Congress has an information-sharing problem. The result is that Congress’ ability to exercise oversight—one of its fundamental responsibilities implied in the Constitution—is seriously hampered.

“The process by which crucial executive branch reports are processed is fragmented and inefficient,” Berger wrote earlier this year. “Congress requests and receives thousands of reports from the executive branch each year, but does not place those reports in a centralized, public repository.”

Obtaining relevant information from one of these executive reports, Berger explained, could be the difference between a Senator asking a hard-hitting question about a dubious government project during an oversight hearing or not.

Making Congressional Oversight Easier

To help make the lives of congressional staffers just a little bit easier, Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) and Rep. Mike Quigley (D-IL), have introduced the Access to Congressionally Mandated Reports Act (ACMRA). The bill would require the Government Printing Office to create a central online location where all executive branch reports to Congress would be posted. This public repository would allow  congressional staff, outside researchers, and interested citizens to easily find troves of interesting and valuable material in these taxpayer-funded reports.

Having the information in these reports readily available to congressional staff strapped for time could have an immediate and tangible impact. Berger listed a number of major news stories from this year alone that came to light due to information Congress received from the executive branch, including “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.”

ACMRA has bipartisan support in both chambers, including co-sponsors Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Maggie Hassan (D-NH) in the Senate and Reps. Rodney Davis (R-IL) and Virginia Foxx (R-NC) in the House. It has already passed in the House as a portion of H.R. 1.

The greatest potential opposition to the bill that Berger identified is the possibility of the executive branch watering down its reports to avoid embarrassing revelations. However he argued that reports with less relevant information would almost certainly subject the executive branch to more aggressive congressional oversight.

“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,” Berger concluded. “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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Image credit: “Hart Senate Office Building, Washington, United States” by Erol Ahmed on Unsplash.