The Speaker's Lobby: Heckler's Veto

By: Chad Pergram, FOX News

17 March 2009

 

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) was in a jovial mood Tuesday morning when he took a question from Josiah Ryan of CNS News during his weekly briefing with reporters.

 

"I don't know why I call on you at every press conference," Hoyer needled Ryan.

 

Ryan asked the Leader a question about cost of living increases for Congress. And Hoyer smiled again.

 

"I don't know why I called on you this time," he chuckled.

 

But Hoyer's decision to call on Ryan and receive his 29-word inquiry may have sat a lot better with the Capitol Hill press corps than a lengthy, turgid interrogative that came later in the session from Mark Plotkin of Washington's all-news radio station WTOP-FM.

 

Lawmakers and aides on Capitol Hill start to learn the types of questions most reporters will ask on any given day.

 

Ed Epstein of Congressional Quarterly usually focuses on inside baseball questions about the Democratic and Republican leadership.

 

Expect Stacy Kaper of American Banker to ask an in-the-weeds question about housing legislation or mortgages.

 

Folks from the networks frequently resort to "story of the day" questions about the major bill on the floor.

 

And if  Plotkin's in the House (or Senate), you can bet he'll ask about Congressional voting rights for the District of Columbia.

 

Plotkin isn't a regular on Capitol Hill. He hosts a weekly show on WTOP on local politics and produces short commentaries too. But Plotkin is sure to make a pilgrimage to the Hill when things heat up about getting the capital a vote in Congress or granting statehood to the District of Columbia.

 

Such is the case now. The House Democratic leadership is stymied by the National Rifle Association in its effort to award a vote to Washington, DC in Congress. If the federal city gets a vote on Capitol Hill, the NRA wants the House to accept a proposal to allow Washington residents to own firearms. And Democratic leaders are in a quagmire because many moderate Democrats and most Republicans won't support a DC vote unless the measure simultaneously quashes the city's gun ban. 

 

So when Hoyer sat down at a conference table for his weekly briefing with reporters and spied Plotkin among the throng, he knew what was coming.

 

"I thought you were going to ask me a foreign policy question," said Hoyer, joking with Plotkin. "I'm shocked."

 

"Sorry. I'm so one-dimensional," replied Plotkin, who then informed Hoyer he was "monomaniacal" about asking about the District of Columbia.

 

Plotkin then proceeded to ask Hoyer a meandering, 188-word question (by comparison, this essay is only 880 words) about legislative options the Leader had at his disposal on the DC vote issue. Plotkin then described various viewpoints proffered by DC Council Chairman Vincent Gray, Councilmember Jack Evans and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC). Plotkin described the differing ideas as "diffuse."

 

The only thing diffuse was Plotkin's inquest. Fellow reporters began rolling their eyes and sighing at Plotkin's layered, labyrinthine query which. It took well over a minute to state. When Plotkin finally ended, one reporter whispered to another, intoning the same verbiage used for NPR underwriting credits. "Support for this program is brought to you by..."

 

Hoyer followed up with an answer. However, Plotkin interrupted.

 

"But in the end, will there be a vote on this bill?" Plotkin pressed the Majority Leader.

 

Hoyer asked Plotkin to clarify what he meant by "this bill" and then answered in the affirmative.

 

Undaunted, Plotkin had more.

 

"Okay. I have two others since I'm...I see your portrait of..."

 

It was too much for the other scribes to take. Anywhere from 20 to 40 reporters gather for a press briefing like Hoyer's. The session usually only lasts a half hour. Hoyer is usually generous with his time. But still, the Leader may only answer five to ten questions.

 

Here Plotkin asked a meandering, obtuse question. Raised a follow-up. Posed another question. And then thought he was entitled to two more.

 

Hell hath no fury...

 

The reporters shouted down Plotkin.

 

"No! No! No!," they protested.

 

"You had your chance," said somebody in the back of the room as the din rose.

 

"One question and one follow-up," admonished Linda Scott of the NewsHour.

 

Hoyer seemed amused at Plotkin's predicament.

 

"Your colleagues, you need to lobby them better, Mark," Hoyer said. He then answered a svelte, 57-word question on Colombia free trade from Susan Cornwell of Reuters.

Plotkin fell victim to what some describe as a "heckler's veto." A heckler's veto is when a mob drowns out a public speaker by shouting him or her down. It allows the group's speech to suppress the speech of the individual. And the clique of reporters assembled in Hoyer's office effectively vetoed Plotkin.

On Tuesday morning, Plotkin crossed a rarely violated but always present invisible line on Capitol Hill. There's an unwritten edict among reporters that you let others ask their questions and you don't hog a newsmaker. Especially when others have questions on diverse subjects. Once reporters chastised Plotkin, Hoyer had no option but to move on.

The citizens of Washington, DC, may still not have a vote on Capitol Hill. But there's little doubt that the Washington press corps certainly does when one of their own steps out of line in the halls of Congress. 

- Chad Pergram covers Congress for FOX News. He's won an Edward R. Murrow Award and the Joan Barone Award for his reporting on Capitol Hill.

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