Republican senators and Senate law enforcement officials attempted to crack down on press access in the Capitol building, Tuesday, as Republicans escalated their efforts to secretly push through their massively unpopular health care bill.
Just a few hours later, after an outcry from the press, and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, the Senate Rules Committee abandoned the effort.
Multiple broadcast reporters indicated Tuesday morning that the Republican-controlled Senate Rules Committee and building sergeant-at-arms tried to restrict TV journalists’ access to senators in hallways, claiming they could not wait outside committee rooms without permission and could not film in the hallways.
The restrictions were a "unilateral decision” by the committee chair, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), who said in a statement that “the Rules Committee has made no changes to existing rules governing press coverage on the Senate side of the Capitol complex.” Rather, he said, it was for the safety of Congress members and the press:
The Committee has been working with the various galleries to ensure compliance with existing rules in an effort to help provide a safe environment for Members of Congress, the press corps, staff and constituents as they travel from Senate offices to the Capitol.
The directive didn’t last long.
NEW: Senate Rules Committee reverses course on hallway interviews. "You may continue to follow the rules as if it was yesterday."— Kasie Hunt (@kasie) June 13, 2017
The crack down caught everyone off guard — including Senators
As Senate officials began enforcing the new restrictions, committees and groups with purview over the press sent reporters on a wild goose chase for the specific guidance. The Senate Radio and TV Press Gallery would not comment on the new guidance, and the Senate sergeant-at-arms did not have the information on hand. The Senate Rules Committee’s main line was busy.
Meanwhile reporters were being told to leave their posts.
Senate Rules Committee and @SenateSAA trying to SHUT DOWN press access in halls. No more staking out hearings without permission. Not OK.— Manu Raju (@mkraju) June 13, 2017
I was just told I cannot stand outside of the Budget Committee hearing room to interview lawmakers. https://t.co/gBdkztGLfO— Kevin Cirilli (@kevcirilli) June 13, 2017
ALERT: Reporters at Capitol have been told they are not allow to film interviews with senators in hallways, contrary to years of precedent— Kasie Hunt (@kasie) June 13, 2017
Another restriction informed about today: we can't venture outside tiny `stake out' area to talk to senators coming to Capitol to vote https://t.co/tnme8toNBI— Laura Litvan (@LauraLitvan) June 13, 2017
But the press wasn’t the only group confused by the sudden change in enforcement.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), the ranking member on the Senate Rules Committee, called on Shelby to reverse the directive — and was unaware this change would happen. Democratic members on the Rules Committee were reportedly not informed of the decision to implement new press restrictions at all.
As ranking member of the Senate Rules Committee I call on the majority to allow reporting in the Capitol to proceed as usual.— Amy Klobuchar (@amyklobuchar) June 13, 2017
The lack of clarity has been concerning to many reporters on Capitol Hill, who are tasked with covering some of Washington’s biggest stories, from the Russia investigation to health care and tax reform. Throughout all of it, hundreds of reporters have crammed into narrow hallways, or by the trams underneath the Capitol, or at the foot of staircases, staking out members of Congress on the move.
The Senate Press Gallery warned reporters something could happen
This isn’t the first attempt to implement new crowd control measures on the press in the Capitol in recent months. The Senate Press Gallery sent out a letter earlier in the year saying, “collectively, the press following Senators has become large and aggressive,” and warning that Capitol officials may be more vigorous with their crowd control. During the Comey hearing, Capitol officials set up ropes to cordon off reporters by the trains where senators move between their offices and the Capitol building.
Sergeant-of-arm officials have also been more assertive to control the large crowds of reporters.
Of course, any attempt to limit the press’s access is problematic, particularly given the ambitious agenda Republicans are trying to pursue this year behind closed doors. Members of Congress are supposed to be questioned by design, whether by reporters or by 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 because they like it — as this most recent development shows, they clearly don’t.
At the end of the day, lawmakers 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.