Unearthing Unpublished Reports to Congress from Federal Agencies: The Birth of a New Journalism Research Technique

By Michael Ravnitzky

Nearly all federal agencies provide reports to Congress.  Most reports fall into one of four general categories:

  • Periodic reports produced as a statutory obligation for an oversight or appropriations Committee in the House or Senate;
  • One-time reports produced as a statutory obligation for a Committee;
  • One-off reports produced in response to a specific request from a Committee, or as a result of an inquiry from a Congressman or Senator.
  • Unsolicited reports produced to help inform a Congressional office or a Committee office.

Many of these reports, perhaps even the majority of them, are never published or posted on the agencies' websites.

One effective means of accessing such reports is to direct a public records request to agencies of interest, or specific components of agencies, and ask for a copy of the title page and first 10 or 20 pages of each report (i.e., all reports) produced for Congress by the agency or component during the time period of interest, for example, during the last three years, but only those which are not posted on the agency public website.

The latter point is quite important — you must specify that the reports you want do not include those posted on the agency public website.

THE ESSENTIAL ASPECT TO THIS IS TO REFUSE TO LIMIT THE REQUEST BY TOPIC, SUBJECT OR TITLE, AND SIMPLY INSIST ON ALL REPORTS PROVIDED TO CONGRESS BY THAT AGENCY OR COMPONENT DURING THE DESIGNATED TIMEFRAME.  The most likely initial response will be a request to specify the subject of the request — but you need not do that if your request is unambiguous as would be above.

If asked, you can indicate that the records are likely to be found in the Legislative Relations or Congressional Relations office of the respective agency or component.

Since these reports typically exist in electronic form, you can alternatively ask for an electronic copy of the entirety of each of the applicable reports.

[NOTE: A resource already taking advantage of this strategy is GovernmentAttic.org. See also related SEJ WatchDog TipSheet of Sep. 24, 2008, "Agency FOIA Logs Posted on Watchdog Site."]