By Chris Adams
When it comes to covering Congress, sometimes it’s just a matter of knowing where to look.
That was the lesson from two veteran Washington reporters who shared with Paul Miller fellows their insights gleaned from years of working the hallways and digging through the data in Congress.
“There’s no one way to cover this place,” said David Lightman (Twitter), a longtime editor and reporter for the McClatchy Washington Bureau.
Among the most important tips from Lightman: “Think ahead.” Congress is an institution that’s active from Monday night until mid-day Thursday, and reporters should plot out their stories and the information or comments they need for them.
There are several stakeout spots in the Capitol, including the Speaker’s Lobby; hallways by members-only elevators; the hallway outside weekly caucus lunches; and the steps by the stop for Capitol Hill’s small subway system. Grab a senator or representative at one of those locations.
“The great thing about this place is that you get access to people – and you get access to both sides,” Lightman said.
Lightman also counsels reporters to be polite – but not too chummy. You’re there to cover the politicians, not to get sucked into being their friend.
That said, politeness has its limits. “Don’t be afraid to politely interrupt people,” Lightman said. Politicians are outstanding communicators and they’ll try to spin away or filibuster your question. Don’t let them.
Also: Record every conversation with a lawmaker. They talk in nuance, often intentionally obfuscating their real views. It might take more than one listen to figure out what they really said.
While Lightman gave advice on who to talk to, Singer of USA Today described how to dig into documents – the spending records, gift disclosures and travel expenditures that detail what Congress is doing when it’s not in the chambers. His work has led to stories such as those on the freewheeling spending of a former congressman from Illinois, Aaron Shock.
Congress, Singer pointed out, is an institution that employs more than 15,000 people and spends $1.5 billion a year to keep itself running. Members and senators run their offices as they see fit, essentially operating as 535 separate small businesses.
And although spending is required to be disclosed, it’s done in a haphazard, opaque manner. “They hate disclosure so much they make it hard,” he said.
But for the reporter willing to dig, the information is there. At the Office of the Clerk in the House, for example, there are filings for foreign travel, franked materials (mass mailings), member travel paid by outside groups, and member income and assets.
The records are often hard to read, and in PDFs you’ll have to go through one-by-one. But they are there.
Another key document shows expenditures by Congress, including everything from salaries of staffers to the cost of office supplies.