The Speaker’s Lobby: The Games of the Congressional Olympiad
By: Chad Pergram, FOX News
20 February 2010
Bode Miller, Apolo Ohno, Evan Lysacek and Lindsey Vonn are all representing the U.S. at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Sometimes I wonder if I’m an Olympic athlete, too.
And unlike most Olympians, I don’t compete in just one discipline. Sometimes I ski the downhill and super G, speed skate and run the luge track. All in the same day. I simultaneously serve as the skip in curling and handle goaltending chores for the hockey team.
You should see me snap a Double cork 1080 in half pipe.
Nordic Combined? Try covering the House and Senate.
Reporting on Congress isn’t an easy thing. There’s no typical day. And if you’re a Capitol Hill journalist, you’ll find yourself toggling back and forth between events and topics. Ranging from committee hearings to news conferences to stakeouts to watching the House floor. On far-flung subjects like health care reform to tracking down which lawmaker is going to retire next.
It’s a bit like being in the Olympics. You know all of the events. But never know which event is up next.
Attending Congressional news conferences is the equivalent of executing compulsory figures in ice skating. The lawmakers espouse pre-established talking points and reporters pick apart their arguments. However, some press conferences are as fraught with as much tension and intrigue as the women’s figure skating finals. Such was the case last spring when scribes grilled House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) about her accusation that the CIA lied to her. Or how about a presser featuring Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) when Democrats considered kicking him out of their caucus? A classic was a 2008 news conference where reporters confronted House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-NY) about his ethics.
These pressure-cookers are an opportunity for reporters to medal. Ask a tough question. Pin down a slippery lawmaker on an elusive policy position. Elicit a compelling soundbyte. Achieve this, and you may hear your country’s anthem played from the podium.
Sometimes the Capitol Hill press corps nails the triple Lutz. Other times, we wipe out badly on a double-axle and even crash into the dasher boards.
Other events are a lot tougher to master than press conferences. Like the biathlon.
The Senate usually recesses midday Tuesday so senators can meet with their parties over lunch. And depending on the news, a flood of reporters spills into the hallway, hoping to buttonhole a senator for a quick interview or a quote as they enter or exit the lunches.
Like the biathlon, the event is a distance event. The Senate recesses at 12:30 pm and reconvenes at 2:15 pm. But reporters assemble as early as noon. And it may take until nearly 3 pm to find everyone you need. That’s the shooting part of the Congressional biathlon. If you trace the senators you need early, then you’ve hit your target with the accuracy of a marksman. Miss them, and you’ll be assessed a time penalty, wandering around the hall until mid-afternoon.
There’s been much concern about the safety of the luge track at the Vancouver games. And there is no Capitol Hill Olympics event as dicey as the stakeout.
Stakeouts can unfold almost anywhere. Near the House Ethics Committee in the Capitol basement or by the Speaker’s Office near the Rotunda. At a stakeout, reporters may want to bark a few questions or even just grab a few seconds of video of a key figure inside. The subject in question could be a lawmaker, the CEO of an automobile company, the White House Chief of Staff, a cabinet secretary or even Brad Pitt.
The challenge of a stakeout is securing worthwhile material after investing hours of time.
Over the past few years, my Senate colleague Trish Turner burned countless hours hunkered outside the offices of former Sens. Ted Stevens (R-AK), Larry Craig (R-ID) and current Sen. John Ensign (R-NV) after each were beset by ethics scandals. On most occasions, Turner secured a compelling comment or two from each. But frankly, you never know what if anything you’re going to get.
Russia invaded Georgia in August, 2008. Some casual conversations with a number of House aides signaled to me that Georgian Ambassador Vasil Sikharuldze was visiting Capitol Hill to brief them on the incursion. I did some sleuthing to deduce the time and location of the meeting. And I had to do a few Google searches to know what the ambassador looked like. We staked out the right hallway in the Cannon House Office Building when Sikharuldze arrived that afternoon and chased the ambassador down the corridor for an interview. And no other news organization ever knew he was there.
We took gold in that particular event.
Some events resemble short-track speed skating. Say a big story breaks and I know other news organizations will have it soon enough. But naturally you want to be first. And accurate. So you write-up the info as fast as you can and rush it on the air. You’re moving at top speed. But if you’re not careful, you can lose an edge and crash.
Big events like a Joint Session of Congress convert you into the skip in curling. In curling, the skip sets up the shot and glides the stone down the ice. For instance, I’m often asked about the best camera locations or who we should book to interview. This is more tactical than athletic. But like the skip, if I don’t set things up properly, our stone glides off target.
On other days, I play goalie. There’s no blockbuster hearing or lawmakers aren’t debating a major bill on the floor. But there’s always the risk of a puck getting past me. So I don my pads, a mask and grab a catching glove. I work the phones. I check the House Ethics Committee website to be sure they haven’t taken any action. I stroll through the House office buildings just to take the temperature. I hang out near the House floor during votes to watch the body language of members. If I’m not vigilant, I could face an odd-man rush storming down the ice. And if there is a loose puck, I’m usually able to scoop it up just before the other team flicks it into the back of the net.
But there are days when I compete in Olympic disciplines I’ve never even heard of.
Ski ballet was a demonstration sport in the 1988 and 1992 winter games. Some days make me feel as though I was performing ballet on skis while sliding down a mountainside.
At least that’s graceful.
Skijoring, or skiing while being pulled by a pack of dogs, was a demonstration sport in the 1928 games in St. Moritz, Switzerland.
Skijoring never made the grade as a permanent Olympic event. But there are days so volatile on Capitol Hill that I feel as though I’m teetering on skis while being lugged through the snow drifts and dells of the Congressional woods. I hang on for dear life on those days, at the mercy of the wherever the hounds of Capitol Hill want to take me.
– 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 hallway that runs behind he dais in the House chamber. Lawmakers, aides and journalists often confer there during votes.