Pulp Fiction

The Speaker’s Lobby: Pulp Fiction

By: Chad Pergram, FOX News

04 October 2009

The D’Alesandro brothers must have been the envy of everyone growing up among the row houses of Baltimore’s Little Italy neighborhood.

Back in the 1930s and ‘40s, other boys probably horded scores of comic books under their beds. Flash Gordon. Batman. The Green Arrow. Perhaps someone even possessed a coveted copy of Action Comics #1, the debut of Superman. The issue depicts the “Man of Tomorrow” hoisting a roadster above his head and smashing it into the side of a cliff.

But such tripe couldn’t be found under the beds of the D’Alesandro boys. No. Stowed beneath their beds, among the biscotti and cannoli crumbs, rested publications that were even more precious. 

“I remember as a little, tiny girl and then growing up that my mother used to have the Congressional Records under my brothers’ bed,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), nee D’Alesandro. “Nobody I know had a library of Congressional Record statements under their brothers’ bed and could read about any subject at any time.”

I’m sure that compelled the Little Italy kids to shun stickball games in the street to clamor at the D’Alesandro’s door just to read what lawmakers were saying about the Bretton Woods Agreement.

When Pelosi was born, her father Thomas D’Alesandro Jr., was a Member of Congress. The speaker says her dad would often leaf through the Congressional Record at home. Her mother crafted a system of storing the Congressional Record under the beds so he could easily locate the copy he wanted.

“I had five older brothers and they used to jump on the beds and break the springs. But the Congressional Record was there,” Pelosi said. “It was not only our library. But a way to have the beds be more sound.”

As they say, politics makes strange bedfellows.

Pelosi invoked her brothers’ antics of jumping on the beds during her announcement that the Congressional Record is now printed on 100 percent recycled paper. Environmental preservation is one of the speaker’s primary policy issues. Since becoming speaker, Pelosi has specifically implemented steps to “green” the Capitol. Those efforts have ranged from the installation of more energy-efficient light bulbs to the introduction of corn-based, compostable forks in the House cafeterias.

So now, every single word uttered by Members of Congress will be printed on recycled paper. A chronicle of the hot air steaming up from the Capitol Dome.

Talk about global warming.

But Pelosi says this effort will slash the emission of 1.4 million pounds of greenhouse gasses each year.

One wonders how much they’d help the environment if they printed all of the different  health care reform proposals on recycled paper.

The Government Printing Office produces more than 4,100 copies of the Congressional Record each day. That’s down from 15,000 copies in the mid-1990s. And never mind that the Congressional Record is available online. Congressman D’Alesandro may have had to scrounge through old copies of the Congressional Record to read what a colleague said. But today, most people who monitor Congress can almost instantly trace the material they want online. Congressional Quarterly, C-SPAN and squadrons of bloggers upload either the text or video of floor speeches and committee hearings constantly.

A case study in this came last Tuesday night.

The House had concluded its legislative business for the day and moved to Special Orders speeches. Special Orders are when lawmakers take to the House floor for anywhere from a minute to an hour and pontificate about anything.

Few pay little attention to what’s said during this part of the House’s day. In fact, Politico’s Jonathan Allen was about to depart the Capitol when he noticed Reps. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) and Jimmy Duncan (R-TN) railing on the House floor about something controversial someone had just said. Within a few minutes, Allen was able to locate a transcript and video of what offended Blackburn and Duncan. As many know now, Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL) had taken to the floor to declare that the GOP’s approach to reforming health care was “die quickly.”

Using the traditional, printed Congressional Record, Allen would have had to have waited at least a day to uncover specifically what Grayson said. By getting the transcript, Allen posted an online story about the Grayson kerfuffle later that night. In fact, I learned about the incident when a senior Republican aide emailed me a YouTube clip of Grayson’s speech while I was at the gym. The technology helped propel the Grayson incident to one of the most-compelling stories of the week.

So in the digital age, why maintain a printed version of the Congressional Record?

First of all, one-third of the federal government’s annual business is documented in the Congressional Record. It represents a permanent, printed archive of Congressional activity. If lawmakers completely digitized the record, Congress could face a credibility problem. Computers can be hacked. Words can be altered and changed. But a physical, printed copy is irrefutable proof of what senators and representatives have said and done. People are skeptical of government these days. And a concrete repository published regularly for posterity could dispel fears, however paranoid they may be, that Congress would try to pull a fast one.

So for now, Congress spits out more than 4,000 copies of the Congressional Record every day it’s in session. That’s still a lot of pulp, recycled or not. The printed Congressional Record isn’t going away any time soon. And that means the ideas of a paper-less Congress remain the dreams of “pulp fiction.”

-         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.

-         The Speaker’s Lobby refers to a long, ornate corridor that runs behind the dais in the House chamber. Reporters, aides and lawmakers often confer there during votes.