While 2017 has been quite the year when it comes to politics, the only thing that really changed for reporters on Capitol Hill was the pace of news associated with President Donald Trump’s administration and the Republican Congress. It was busy. At times, it seemed overwhelming. But it didn’t stop us from doing our job.
So, let’s try to pull back the curtain on what goes on for me and my colleagues who try to cover the U.S. House and Senate.
1. It’s the best beat in Washington by far. While the White House is far more prestigious for reporters, covering 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue doesn’t compare to Capitol Hill in one main respect, as you can literally find a story at any time of the day in the halls of the House and Senate. Walking the halls – ‘checking the traps’ as I like to call it – is a great way to run into lawmakers, whether on the stairs, in an elevator, in the lunch line, out front on the Capitol plaza, you name it. But with the dramatic growth in the number of reporters on the Hill in recent years, you might have to share your encounter with a number of other journalists.
2. Where do I work? A window well, and in the attic. There are several work spaces set aside in the Capitol complex for reporters. Print (newspaper) reporters have the most historic space that opens into the House and Senate chambers. My Radio-TV colleagues have our own small booths on the third floor of the Capitol as well. Still photographers have their own work space, as do the periodical press, shoehorned into some of the extra space culled out of the innards of the U.S. Capitol. I have two small broadcast booths; the one in the House sits in a window well. It is so small that I have used velcro to attach tape recorders to the wall to save space. But as you can see from the photo below, it has a million dollar view down the National Mall.
My broadcast booth in the U.S. Senate is stuffed with electronics gear up in the attic above the third floor, wedged in next to the upper reaches of the Old Senate Chamber. There are no windows, but it is a rabbit warren of broadcast booths for the major television networks and a series of national radio reporters. This a photo taken recently by Astrid Riecken of the Washington Post.
3. The endless hallway stakeouts. There are two ways to cover the Congress – you can either watch the floor and committee hearings, and report on the legislative action in those arenas, or you can pursue lawmakers in the hallways. But most of your time in the halls is spent waiting, so there is certainly a tradeoff. House Republicans usually gather in a large meeting room down in the basement of the Capitol – and when lawmakers emerge, it’s often a crowded, chaotic scene as we try to figure out what’s happening, and who we can try to get a comment from. In this photo, you can barely see Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC), a key member of the House Freedom Caucus. He saw a lot of these type of media scrums in 2017.
4. The Moving Scrum raises eyebrows. As the number of reporters has increased, so too have concerns about people getting in the way of lawmakers in the hallways. Senate officials warned reporters to tone it down some in 2017, amid worries that older Senators might get bumped, tripped or even knocked down – which no one wants to see. What does a moving scrum look like? Here’s a quick example with Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) as he emerged from a meeting of GOP Senators this summer. Sometimes it gets a little tricky in the halls.
5. Is that member of Congress really on the phone? One thing that has increased in recent years is the number of lawmakers who walk down a hallway crowded with reporters, while talking on a cell phone. We often roll our eyes, figuring that many of the members aren’t really talking on the phone, but rather they just don’t want to answer any questions. I’ve seen more than a few get past a group of reporters, and then suddenly take the phone from their ear, proving that exact point. Here’s some video that I shot of Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA), after he had arrived back from a White House meeting on GOP efforts to advance a major health care bill. Was Toomey on the phone? Or did he just not want to talk to Al Fram of the Associated Press?
6. There are still phone booths on Capitol Hill. If you have ever seen the movie “Airplane,” there is a scene where a group of reporters run into a set of phone booths to file their stories, and the phone booths all fall over. When I started reporting in the 1980’s, I spent a lot of time in phone booths, even on Capitol Hill, filing out stories. Some of those phone booths are gone, but a few still remain, like a group of them outside of the House Ways and Means Committee – that’s where I was in early January of 2017, waiting to see what Republicans would do with their legislative agenda. You will note that while the phone booth remains intact, there is no actual phone inside of it.
7. The Senate subway. If you’re wondering where reporters gather, one place that has become a central spot for news gathering is where the two subway trains arrive from the Senate office buildings at the Capitol. This evolved into a prime focus only in the last few years, as reporters moved away from the area just outside the Senate chamber, which had become more and more crowded. No television cameras are permitted – except for one designated stakeout area – so this is more for print and radio reporters. A number of Senators will stop down here and talk for an extended period of time. Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) spent a lot of time there in 2017.
8. The walk and talk. Some Senators don’t like to stop and talk by the subway; they just keep walking. And if you want to get something from them, you will keep walking as well. It takes a few minutes to walk from the Capitol to the three different Senate office buildings – some reporters will pester Senators the whole way. Others will peel off after they’ve gotten a few comments, turning around in hopes of finding another Senator who has opted against riding the subway (I also do interviews on the moving subway cars as well, if needed.) Here, Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) decides against a ride on the subway, and heads back to his office on foot, with a lot of reporters in tow. During one such walk in December, there was a reporter right in front of Cornyn who wasn’t walking very fast – which resulted in more questions for the Senator. Cornyn made it very clear the guy needed to pick up the pace.
What does it look like from another angle? Here is a pack of reporters pursuing Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY). That’s me on the left, trying to make sure that I don’t walk over the still photographers looking for their shot.
9. The place that I can’t show you any pictures. My favorite place to talk to lawmakers is just off the House floor, in what’s known as the Speaker’s Lobby. This is where reporters can gather – if they are properly attired – and send in cards asking lawmakers to come out for an interview. It’s a great spot to pick up insight on what’s happening. But, no cameras are allowed there. When I started reporting on Capitol Hill in 1986, radio reporters were not even allowed to bring our tape recorders into the Speaker’s Lobby. Then we were allowed to use our recorders, but only at one table on each end of the room. Now, we can roam around with everyone else. Here is a video of what it looks like in that room – without anyone there. When there is a big vote, it is jammed with dozens of reporters.
10. The Ohio Clock Corridor. Just off the Senate floor, this area is often filled with reporters on Tuesdays, when both parties have their weekly lunch meetings. The party in power in the Senate gets the larger room by the Ohio Clock, and reporters wait there for Senators to emerge. Sometimes there is a guest who outranks everyone, as the Vice President will show up to meet with his party – in 2017, that was Vice President Mike Pence, shown here emerging from a December meeting with GOP Senators.
11. The party leadership stakeout. You’ve probably seen this one on television in recent months, sound bites from Republican and Democratic leaders in the Senate before cameras and reporters. That’s done at the other end of the Ohio Clock Corridor, where TV cameras are allowed to set up. This is a photo from the other side of those gatherings, looking back in the direction of the TV lights and the TV cameras. As you can see, there are a lot of reporters, and a lot of police as well.
12. You never know who you might see. Part of the fun of being on Capitol Hill for so many years is that former members show up in the halls from time to time. Some are now lobbying or working for law firms. Some are just back to say hello. Some return for meetings of the former members association. You can tell they like it when someone remembers them. Here’s a picture of former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-MS), getting a laugh as he runs into Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), and soon-to-be-former Sen. Luther Strange (R-AL). The reporter on the left is John Bresnahan of Politico.
13. I could go on and on. But I wouldn’t want to give away some of my secrets. There was a veteran reporter who once warned me not to tell other people about one way to interview lawmakers. You’ll have to wait for my book to get that story. Meanwhile, we will do much the same in 2018 in the halls of the Capitol. I can’t say enough good things about the current crop of reporters covering the halls of Congress. They do a very good job, as the pace of news just seems to get faster and faster. And I’ve been lucky to make many friends over the years. I was especially grateful to hear from a group of my colleagues at C-SPAN in recent weeks, as more and more people learn of my neurological troubles that have robbed me of my voice. I hope 2018 turns things around on that front – in the meantime, to Brian Lamb and everyone else at C-SPAN, I say thanks for your support. (The screenshot of this reporter on C-SPAN is from 2004.)
Happy New Year – I think 2018 will be just as entertaining for political reporters in Congress.