Covering Capitol Hill over the past two years represents a prime example of how important it is for journalists to stay flexible and learn new rules of the trade to remain productive.
The decisive victory of Republican candidates for Congress in November 1994 brought headlong changes to the gathering and dissemination of news in the nation’s capital. The GOP sweep in the Senate and House of Representatives changed not only the policy focus, but also the day-to-day operation of an institution with well-established rules of order, Most Americans read about the political shifts and different flow of command instituted by a newly installed majority party intent on working long hours to pursue a new conservative Contract with America. Behind the scenes, however, cutbacks in congressional staff and a heightened skepticism of the press forced reporters on a whole new learning curve.
Less is Less
The House committee responsible for education is an ideal example. Under Democrats, reporters could stroll into the committee’s press room — located in a separate office — to get testimony, ask questions or chat about events. The press room even had a separate phone number for (relatively) easy communication.
The system is much different under the GOP. The press room now is tucked into a section of the committee office, with a gatekeeper in the reception area to monitor access. All phone calls flow to the committee receptionist, with no assurance that a particular message will reach the journalist for whom it was intended.
Staff cutbacks have resulted in other drawbacks to expeditious reporting. Imagine tackling a huge range of divisive issues affecting most Americans, for example, and then having to be faced with the realization that fewer committee staff and press people are available to check mail, answer questions and monitor phone lines. That’s a pretty good picture of the sea change that has occurred in most committees on Capitol Hill.
Even access to publications is different. In the past, Congress’ most powerful committees offered hundreds of their thick, all-important budget documents free of charge. Now, there’s a smaller number of free reports , which are often devoured in minutes by the ever-growing press corps, lobbyists and others. Latecomers usually head to the Government Printing Office to purchase these items.
Was the old system wasteful? Probably, and the new system does save the taxpayer’s money. But in the often shortsighted view of reporters, those issues barely mattered. Information flowed with relative ease under the old system, and that was what was important. If journalists have more problems getting information now, what about the general public? I’m sure college presidents rely more on their education publications now than they did, say, two years ago. For the future, however, those outside Washington DC may find a wider range of resources in that new central refinery of information, the Internet.
To their credit, Republican leaders are offering more information on the ‘Net, where anyone with a computer and a modem can access bills and details about hot issues. Not all information is up to date, however, and some Democrats say many ‘Net pages fail to reflect all views. Yet some committees place their news releases on-line, while others offer a peek at important issues before their members.
These electronic advances are an important benefit to both reporters and the public. Of course, it takes a little time to master the technology — yet another new learning curve that is part of everyday life in this profession.
RELATED ARTICLE: Some useful Internet resources for journalists and the public include:
For the House, punch up http://http://www.house.gov/ From there, users can access menus of panels such as the Economic and Educational Opportunities Committee at http://www.house.eeo/. The Appropriations Committee also offers on-line access to news about federal spending at http://www.house.gov/ appropriations/ welcome;
For the Senate, go to http://www.senate.gov This menu also can provide access to individual committees and members. Education issues fall under the Labor and Human Resources Committee, which is still building its web site at http://www.senate.gov.committee/labor.html
The Congressional Record is accessible through GPO Access at http:// http://www.access.gpo.gov/ From this site, users can peruse the daily journal’s database and search for key words or areas of interest. Users can scan the Federal Register, as well, for information on federal rules and regulations;
The Library of Congress otters another comprehensive look at congressional bills, testimony and a variety of other information at http://www.thomas.loc.gov/ and
The Education Department provides Internet access through a well-organized home page at http://www.ed.gov There, computer users can view news releases, testimony and speeches and download new reports.
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