Edit 6/15: This post was originally published around 12:30am on 6/14, many hours before the horrific shooting in Alexandria, VA at the Republican congressional baseball practice. With the hindsight aided by that awful event, I should have placed more emphasis on a point I mentioned only in passing in the original post below, which is that there are legitimate safety concerns with the huge numbers of reporters crowding into the Capitol building, trying to speak with Senators.
Even barring something as shocking & terrible (and hopefully rare) as what happened on Wednesday, there are the more mundane concerns that come from simple crowd control. But as I did mention in the original post, hopefully the Senate Rules Committee will be able to find a way to address these legitimate concerns without hindering the very crucial role of the press.
“Democracy dies in darkness.” That was the new slogan the Washington Post revealed beneath its masthead shortly after the inauguration of President Trump. The rollout was received with quite a bit of mockery at the time, as it did seem somewhat melodramatic, even for those of us who feared the worst about the coming Republican takeover of D.C.. However, just a few months into the Trump administration & unified Republican control of Washington, it’s become strikingly clear just how easily the norms of our democracy can be eroded, and how crucial a role our media plays in shining a spotlight when that begins to happen.
I’ve written previously about one particular way that I believe Republicans are wearing away these norms that are so important to keeping our democracy strong: flouting the obligation to be accountable to the people. Republicans have been displaying over & over their contempt for the idea that they should answer to the American people. In Detest the Protest I wrote about a pattern we’ve seen of GOP Congress members dismissing, delegitimizing, intimidating & attempting to criminalize protestors. That post was spurred by news of a Republican member of Congress who used his powerful position to get an anti-Trump activist removed from her job (and it was capped by GOP House candidate Greg Gianforte’s assault on a reporter, which took place just as I was in the middle of writing that post. He went on to win election the next day).
I followed up that post with Contempt of Course, about the ultra-secretive process the GOP used to overturn Obama’s internet privacy rule. The GOP purposefully kept their plan for the bill hidden from the public – and left no time for dissent before the vote – because they knew the bill was going to be extremely unpopular with the public. Instead of that unpopularity causing them to rethink the bill, they simply passed it in a manner that allowed them to avoid answering to the public along the way.
And now, this week, Tuesday was a five-alarm sort of day in the accountability department, as just around mid-day, Twitter lit up with news that members of the press were being shooed out of the Capitol, told that they were no longer permitted to interview Senators in the hallway without prior approval from both the Senator’s office and the Senate Rules Committee. Supposedly it was the Senate Rules Committee, let by Alabama Republican Senator Richard Shelby, that had suddenly instituted this new procedure. This went against decades of precedent and dramatically limited reporters’ access to members of the Senate.
On a typical day, reporters from radio & tv stations of all stripes would catch Senators in the hallway, on their way in or out of hearings or meetings, to ask them questions about the business of the day. This allows reporters to have access to Senators even when Senators don’t sit down for formal interviews, which obviously are much more limited in frequency and reach.
That this is happening right now is especially important, as Republicans in the Senate are writing their version of the health care bill entirely in secret. No one, outside of a small working group of Republican Senators, knows what is in this draft of the bill they’re putting together. Even most GOP Senators are not sure of the bill’s details right now. And Republicans plan to rush the bill to a vote as soon as it’s finalized, without giving the public any time to weigh in.
In a completely unprecedented lack of transparency, they are skipping the standard committee process, they will hold no public hearings, get no input from stakeholders (such as doctors, insurers, hospitals), and they will give the general public almost no time to read the bill before the vote.
They are not holding any press conferences on the bill, and their goal is to vote on the bill before they break for the 4th of July recess, so that the vote will take place before Senators go home and have to face feedback from constituents. They are doing all of this because they know that their bill, which is rumored to be very similar to the extraordinarily unpopular House bill, would face enormous blowback from the public, and they don’t want to be accountable to their constituents about it.
Given all that, it’s especially crucial for reporters to be able to speak to Senators in the Capitol hallway or outside their offices. It is their only opportunity to ask them questions about the health care bill. And they are doing so as our conduits. The only way we – the American people – have a hope of getting information about this bill is if reporters are able to squeeze some information out of a few Senators in these hallway match-ups. But the Senate Rules Committee shut that down.
And of course, it’s not just about health care. Reporters use these hallway interviews to ask Senators about all sorts of issues that the American people might want to hear about. These days, the other frequent topic of conversation is the Russia investigation and Comey’s testimony. Republicans are surely getting tired of answering questions about that. But that’s part of their jobs as our representatives – and shutting down the press to avoid an essential aspect of their jobs should not be acceptable.
Anyway, these actions in the Capitol unsurprisingly resulted in swift & fierce blowback – from reporters, from elected Democrats (and some Republicans), and from the public. After a couple hours of that, Senator Shelby put out a statement saying that there had been no change to “existing rules.” But take a careful look at his statement:
The language is highly technical and legalistic, the way you sound when you’re trying to say something along the lines of: I didn’t really exactly do that thing you’re accusing me of doing, because this slight loophole is allowing me to be very literal about denying it.
So it sounds like while there might have been no formal rule change, Shelby or someone on his committee definitely directed a new application of the rule that resulted in what happened Tuesday morning. However, after the reaction was so intense & so immediate, it seems like he may be walking it back. Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar, the top Democrat on the Rules Committee contacted Senator Shelby about the change:
Shelby’s response is a bit odd, because it appears he already did make a change, and that he did so without consulting anyone. But perhaps this means he’ll rethink it and either retract the new policy altogether or make it much more carefully tailored, aimed only at easing the crowds in the hallway, while being sure not to hamper press access in any way.
Given that the GOP has repeatedly demonstrated their flagrant disregard for the idea that they should be accountable to the people they represent, it’s refreshing to see that there seems to be at least some responsiveness on Shelby’s part to the negative reaction from the public. But let’s see what happens with this going forward (his staff says the committee will review the rules) & whether Shelby really withdraws Tuesday’s apparent new policy – a policy which seems clearly designed to impede reporter access.
Whatever the ultimate outcome, the intent of this policy change seems hard to deny. It’s of a piece with a pattern we’ve been seeing for months now, in which the GOP goes to great lengths to avoid being accountable to their constituents. They are propping up an extremely unpopular President and attempting to put in place highly unpopular policies – and they’re doing so by dodging questions, avoiding public scrutiny and keeping their conduct hidden from the people. However, every impromptu hallway question by the press is an attempt to shine a light on these actions by the GOP. It’s become a battle of transparency versus camouflage, openness versus concealment, light versus darkness. Hopefully darkness will not win the day.