A Fight Over Reporters' Access on Capitol Hill

Reports of curbs on access to senators in the corridors of Congress ignited alarm, and confusion.

Senator John McCain speaks with reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., in May 2017.
Senator John McCain speaks with reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., in May 2017. (Aaron P. Bernstein / Reuters)

Bewilderment and alarm rippled across U.S. newsrooms on Tuesday afternoon as reporters tried to figure out what, exactly, the Senate Rules Committee was attempting to prevent them from doing on Capitol Hill.

“Reporters at Capitol have been told they are not allow to film interviews with senators in hallways, contrary to years of precedent,” Kasie Hunt, a Capitol Hill correspondent for NBC News tweeted. “Conditions for any interview: Previously granted permission from senator and Rules Committee of Senate.”

A staffer with the Senate Radio and Television Correspondents Gallery, who told me repeatedly he couldn’t comment on the matter, confirmed that the gallery director was “roaming the halls” telling reporters about the new rules. (What those rules were, exactly, he wouldn’t say.) Staffers in the Senate Periodical Press Gallery told me that their colleagues were in a meeting trying to figure out the origin and extent of the new rules.

My repeated calls and emails to the Senate Rules Committee, where the rule apparently originated, yielded little additional information. A call to Senator Richard Shelby, an Alabama Republican and the chair of the committee, went directly to voicemail. But in a statement, Shelby later insisted that “the Rules Committee has made no changes to the existing rules,” but had been “working with the various galleries to ensure compliance with existing rules.” Those existing rules had, in practice, not always been enforced.

“As ranking member of the Senate Rules Committee I call on the majority to allow reporting in the Capitol to proceed as usual,” tweeted Senator Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat. She later told reporters that “this was just some arbitrary enforcement of a rule that was against common practice on the very day that Attorney General Jeff Sessions was set to testify.” Klobuchar promised to work with other senators to make things “work more smoothly.”

With the news business as competitive as the political environment is chaotic these days, a pack of reporters scrambling for a post-hearing comment can be an overwhelming presence. It wasn’t immediately clear whether the rules were a targeted effort to keep hallways clear of bulky camera crews—which could create traffic jams outside of already-packed high-profile hearings that seem to happen on a weekly basis these days—or part of a broader crackdown. But to journalists, the distinction didn’t much matter. The notion that a reporter would need to seek approval for an interview from a reluctant lawmaker—essentially giving that elected official a clear path to evade questions—is absurd. As National Journal’s Ben Geman wrote in 2015, “impromptu one-on-one interviews, quick exchanges by the elevator, and longer pop-up press conferences happen constantly—and they're extremely valuable, not just to individual reporters but also to the wider cause of good journalism.”

And at a time when the president of the United States is hostile to the press—he’s called American citizens who work as reporters “the enemy of the people,” among other insults—even the possibility of heightened restrictions against reporters provoked alarm. Antagonism toward the press is common among Trump’s supporters, too. Forty-two percent of Trump voters said it was “appropriate for Republican politicians to body-slam members of the media,” according to a Public Policy Polling survey released on Monday; 45 percent said that was inappropriate.

As Senate officials scrambled to figure out what was happening on Tuesday, reporters were already encountering the new restrictions. “I was just told I cannot stand outside of the Budget Committee hearing room to interview lawmakers,” Kevin Cirilli‏, Bloomberg TV’s chief Washington correspondent wrote.

Some lawmakers chimed in with support for reporters.

“Maybe not the right moment to lower the secrecy veil on Congress,” wrote Senator Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat.  “To whoever is trying to protect Senators - we can fend for ourselves.” And Nebraska Republican Senator Ben Sasse tweeted, “This is a bad idea.”

Later on Tuesday, Shelby, the Rules Committee chairman, told CNN that what had happened was a “miscommunication.” Hunt, the NBC News reporter, characterized this response as a reversal of course by the committee amid an outcry from journalists and citizens.

“Just keep doing what you’re doing,” one Senate staffer told me. “Ask for forgiveness, not permission.”