A Republican congressional candidate in Montana allegedly assaulted a reporter after being asked a question. As a reporter who asks congressmen and women questions every day, if elected, I can say Capitol Hill is going to be a rude awakening for Greg Gianforte.
I have sprinted down corridors with Rep. Mark Meadows — an architect of the health bill — and waited outside a bathroom for Rep. Trey Gowdy, who will likely be the next chair of the House Oversight committee. I’ve followed Sen. Joe Manchin into his car to see what a bipartisan health care working group has been cooking up. That’s the usual on Capitol Hill.
Members of Congress are supposed to be questioned by design. Whether by reporters or their constituents, they are elected officials who answer to the public.
That’s why they have town hall meetings in their home districts, and that’s why they talk to the press.
It’s not because it’s a nice thing to do, or that they like it. As someone who is tasked with asking Congress members questions, I can attest that on more than one occasion lawmakers have exhaled a sigh of relief when they make it past a line of reporters without being addressed.
At the end of the day, these representatives are accountable to the people, and the press is instrumental in holding those members accountable. Take it from Rep. Al Green of Texas: He thanks reporters almost every time he walks past us on his way to the House floor.
So when Gianforte — the Montana congressional candidate who is running for election today — allegedly body slammed a reporter for asking a relatively innocuous question on the effects of the health care bill, he should know that if he wins, he won’t be able to escape this.
Trust me, I’m part of hordes of reporters doing the asking.
The questions get a lot harder than “what do you think of CBO”
The Guardian’s Ben Jacobs asked Gianforte what he thought about new numbers from the Congressional Budget Office on the House’s health care bill — a report that seemed to look bad for the party that passed it, projecting 23 million would lose insurance in 10 years and protections for patients with preexisting conditions could vanish. And then Gianforte physically assaulted him.
But over the course of the past two months, having to answer a simple, “What do you think of the CBO?” question is far from the most stressful position lawmakers have been in.
As Trump has gotten more politically toxic, dogged by scandals surrounding the firing of FBI Director James Comey and reportedly revealing highly classified intelligence to Russian officials, Republicans increasingly have had to answer for him. On legislative priorities like health care and tax reform, Republican lawmakers are having to defend policy that remains incredibly unpopular with the public.
Throughout all of it, hundreds of reporters have crammed into narrow hallways, or by the trams underneath the Capitol building, or at the foot of staircases, staking out members of Congress on the move.
There are so many reporters doing this nowadays that the Senate Press Gallery sent out a letter saying, “collectively, the press following Senators has become large and aggressive,” warning that Capitol officials may be more vigorous with their crowd control.
And all this reporting is to ask lawmakers the questions they sometimes don’t want to answer, or have avoided in their press statements — to get their real-time reactions before their communications directors have time to feed them the politically appropriate lines.
Make no mistake, the questions aren’t going to get any easier, as one Politico reporter promised:
If Greg Gianforte is elected to Congress, I look forward to repeatedly asking him about the CBO score of the GOP health bill.— Dan Diamond (@ddiamond) May 25, 2017
Believe it or not, Congress is one of the few places where civility is key
Congress has a way of doing things.
In the House of Representatives Ethics Manual there is a rule requiring all members to conduct themselves “at all times in a manner that reflects creditably on the House.” That rule applies to how members work with the press. If Gianforte is elected, he’d essentially have violated those guidelines before he got there.
There’s precedence here.
When former Rep. Michael Grimm threatened to kill a reporter for trying to ask about a scandal involving tax fraud, saying on camera, “I’ll break you in half. Like a boy.” He apologized, but Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a government watchdog organization filed a complaint to the Office of Congressional Ethics citing the House rule.
“When a member of Congress abuses the privileges of his position, it is incumbent on the House to clearly and quickly reprove such conduct,” the complaint reads. “Many Americans already believe members of Congress are arrogant and not bound by the rules applied to everyone else. … The OCE should therefore commence an immediate investigation into Rep. Grimm’s behavior and forward this matter to the House Ethics Committee,” CREW Executive Director Melanie Sloan said, according to a 2014 report from the Hill.
Then-Speaker John Boehner reportedly asked Grimm to resign after he had pleaded guilty to tax evasion, and he left Congress in disgrace.
If elected, House Speaker Paul Ryan has told reporters that Gianforte would still be seated in Congress, saying that is what Montanans wanted. But he added that the Montana congressional candidate should apologize.
Gianforte has yet to apologize — but if he wins, he’ll face some questions about his conduct that are much tougher than the CBO score.