USA TODAY US Edition
My return to a very different Capitol
I’ve been having flashbacks the past few days.
Last week, I moved into USA TODAY’s desk in the Senate Press Gallery, less than 10 feet from the desk I occupied for United Press International in March 2000.
The Press Gallery looks much like it looked then — a regal marble and tile corridor full of wood cubicles where reporters from dozens of news outlets camp out while covering the U.S. Congress. A set of doors opens onto the Senate chamber; reporters can sit in the rows of bar stools above the Senate floor and watch the proceedings below, but we rarely do. We mostly watch on the hundreds of screens in the gallery. The bulk of our work is nagging sources on the phones, over email and in the halls of the Capitol.
My new job is a lot like the job I took 15 years ago — producing and overseeing congressional coverage for a large, general-interest news organization.
It amuses me to think of the parallels from those days. In 2000, one of the most closely watched political campaigns was the historic attempt by first lady Hillary Clinton to win a Senate seat from New York (she did). One of the major legislative bat- tles of that period was an Iran sanctions act — after two years of squabbling, Congress gave President Bill Clinton the authority to impose sanctions on Iran in an effort to limit its pursuit of weapons of mass destruction. And that spring, after a series of fatal shootings, the president called on Congress to pass a series of gun control measures (it didn’t).
But much has changed in the 15 years since my last arrival in the gallery.
For starters, the Capitol building itself is vastly different. In the middle of the past decade, Congress completed work on a $600 million underground visitor center that nearly doubled the amount of space in the Capitol. The old building is a warren of winding hallways and underground tunnels; the new building adds dozens of ways to get lost. I have discovered several of these in the past couple of weeks.
The denizens of these catacombs have changed as well. Despite complaints about “career politicians,” less than 25% of the lawmakers (22 senators; 97 House members) were in Congress the last time I moved in. The Congressional Research Service reports that the average member of Congress remains in office less than 10 years.
Likewise, many of the news organizations I sit beside are different. The gallery is packed with reporters from Politico, Buzz-Feed, The Huffington Post and a host of other news organizations that did not exist 15 years ago. UPI, ironically, is no longer here, and The New York Times has my old desk.
The most dramatic change is in Congress as an institution.
I wrote a story in March 2000 that would be unthinkable today: Republican leaders offered a compromise bill that would have required background checks for firearms purchases at gun shows and child safety locks on handguns. The Democratic response was a harbinger of our current conundrum: They rejected it because they said it had too many loopholes. If the same bill were offered by a Republican chairman today, I suspect Democrats would leap to embrace it, while the bulk of the Republican Party would race to disavow it.
Compromise has become a dirty word.
Over the past several years, we have written repeatedly about the declining output of Congress. The two-year congressional term that ended in December produced less than half the number of laws as the Congress I covered in 2000 (212 substantive measures, down from 463, according to the Pew Research Center).
This month, Congress will miss its annual Sept. 30 deadline for funding the federal government and will have to pass some kind of stopgap funding measure, as it has every year since 1997. When I moved in last time, nobody thought Congress would shut down the government again after the shutdown in 1995-96 that was widely seen as a public relations debacle for Republicans. Now, threats of a shutdown have become a September ritual.
The public stature of Congress has plummeted. In August 2000, a national Gallup poll showed 42% of Americans disapproved of the job Congress was doing. In August 2015, that number had risen to 82%.
Yet I am enthusiastic about my return to the Press Gallery, because I still find politics and policymaking fascinating, and I still think there are thousands of interesting stories to tell under the dome of the U.S. Capitol. The storytelling tools we employ have changed a lot — tweets, interactive graphics, blog posts — but the goal is the same: Help readers understand how their government works, and empower them to engage in the political process.
I am also enthusiastic about having a desk about a foot wider than my old one. Progress!
The most dramatic change is in Congress as an institution. ... Compromise has become a dirty word.