A window opens into the secretive Congressional Research Service

The chaotic blob of Congress has become a little more open thanks to changes at the Congressional Research Service.

Chalk up a new win for transparency. Soon the once-secretive Congressional Research Service will post its reports online. The agency operates under the Library of Congress, which will operate the site.

CRS didn’t volunteer this initiative. Until now Its “board of directors” would only release reports individually, maybe, upon request from a constituent. But thanks to a provision in a 2018 appropriations bill, it now has to make them all public. Which means not every member of Congress liked the way things were. The provision was the work of Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.). He’s been trotting out legislation about CRS for the past seven years.

I don’t fault the CRS for crouching in the shadows. I don’t like the secretiveness itself, but the CRS has done what members want. It’s their think tank. Until now, most members felt the reports were part of their private domain, like the elevators that only admit those with a certain lapel button.

Another congressional agency — the Congressional Budget Office — has long made its findings public. I find them some of the best reading in and about Washington. I’m not being cute. If you really want the facts about who pays taxes and who doesn’t, for instance, that’s the place to find out. Sometimes CBO is faulted for the models it uses to “score” the costs of legislation. But at least the methodologies are open to scrutiny.

My issue was CBO people would never come to the phone for an interview. But that, too, changed recently. Check out this interview with Director Keith Hall. When my producers landed this booking I said: “Well I’ll be darned. The CBO director.” I didn’t see Hall in person. This one was, in radio parlance, a phoner. But he sounded normal and down-to-earth.

Like their counterparts at CRS, CBO people might have been reluctant because of fear of dimming the limelight on members. After all, to a member of Congress the sweetest sound in the language is the sound of his or her own name. Here again, understandable. It’s not easy getting elected to Congress. And these days, it’s looking a little harder to stay there.

The longer I follow Congress, the harder I find it to understand. I’ve interviewed dozens of members from both chambers and both parties. Every one seemed sane and reasonable. Many are downright friendly. They’re politicians, but they’re people too. I’ve never felt they’re acting. Yet the institution as a whole adds up to a big blob of chaos. But now a slightly more transparent blob.

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