FOR THE RECORD; The reporters for Congress' daily transcript can't let themselves get caught up in history, even while they're hanging on every word.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON -- Jerry Linnell is not easily impressed by big-time political events.

He has been working on Capitol Hill for a quarter of a century. He is a veteran court reporter, one of those people who stenographically records every word said on the floor of the House and Senate. Over that time, a lot of history has flowed through his fingers and into the pages of the Congressional Record.

For him, Day One of President Clinton's impeachment trial produced an unexpected personal reaction.

"When I first went out onto the Senate floor, my stomach was churning," he said. "My goosebumps made me look like a muscle man. It lasted two or three minutes, until I started writing."

And Day Two?

"I calmed down."

Calm is necessary in his business. To get things down word for word is his reason for being on the Senate floor. The Congressional Record has to come out by the next morning, as flawless as the seven official reporters who cover the Senate and their backup team can make it.

It is not easy work. The reporters sit through round-the-clock sessions; they endure, and record, every word of filibusters. They have to be present at long quorum calls, and deal with every type of regional accent, occasionally even foreign ones, and keep up with the pace of every speaker, even people like the late Hubert Humphrey, possibly the fastest talker in Senate history.

The process is one long rush, from the chaplain's opening prayer until the last word is uttered and the gavel falls, all driven by the frequently dueling imperatives of accuracy and speed.

Linnell spends only 10 minutes at a time on the floor. He then yields his place to one of his colleagues and returns -- with his little mauve stenographic machine protruding before his midsection, like a cigarette girl's tray -- to the subterranean office beneath the Capitol out of which the Official Reporters of Debates of the United States Senate operate.

There he pours his 10 minutes' worth of history into a computer, which translates the phonetic stenographic language into standard English. He cleans it up, dispatches it electronically to one of three transcribers; they check it, then send it back for another look by Linnell.

A hard copy goes to Chief Reporter Ron Kavulick, and Linnell returns to the Senate floor for another 10-minute stint.

Later in the day, his reports, and his colleagues', will find their way to the Government Printing Office. "The transcript," Kavulick says, "is a work in progress -- all day long."

By 9 a.m. the next morning, an account of the events of the previous day's Senate session is on the desk of every congressional representative and senator, in the mailboxes of offices throughout the federal government, and in the mail to libraries and other subscribers around the globe. It also goes on the Internet, all 60 to 75 pages of densely packed type. No pictures, no illustrations.

Kavulick, a lean, white-haired 57-year-old, who worked the floor himself for 16 years before being named chief reporter, understands the psychology generated by such an event as an impeachment, and its potential for derailing the reporters' concentration. But he lives in absolute certainty that it won't.

"I know that when the reporters first went out there they felt a sense of awe at this historic moment. I've sensed this myself when I reported on emotional speeches. But once that sense of the moment has sunk in, you realize that it's just another story."

From that point on, the brain goes on automatic pilot, and the fingers do all the work.

The whole story

When historians look back some years hence to learn what transpired in the House and Senate in the winter of 1998-99, they will find the most complete story in the Congressional Record. It will be an all-inclusive account of Puritanical rage, dissembling speeches, patriotic posturing and widespread indignation fueled by manifest political partisanship gone over the top. It will be complete, this account, though absent analysis (good or bad) and bias (except that evident in the words of those speaking), a record more thorough and more precise than that found in any newspaper or magazine, or broadcast by any television or radio program, and more subtle and suggestive of the motives and intentions of the participants than that produced anywhere else.

For that's what the Congressional Record provides: not only a verbatim account, but a sense of intention, which comes through as the lawmakers explain their purposes in their own words. For that reason judges and lawyers frequently refer to the Congressional Record.

Congress is required by the Constitution to keep a journal of its proceedings, but that journal is not the Congressional Record.

The House and Senate journals provide the official story, the record of proceedings, the introduction of bills, the results of votes. It is kept by clerks, and does not include discussion -- that is, a sense of motive.

It is only a sketch. The Congressional Record is a full-blown collective portrait, rich in color, shadow and light. The story it tells is full of the obvious, but it is also replete with suggestion and innuendo. It is the whole complex story of the federal legislature as it lives its life, day after day.

By the early part of the 19th century it became apparent that the Senate and House journals were insufficient and that it was increasingly necessary to have a fuller account. Why? Because the appetite for news of congressional doings was growing.

To accommodate this, the 30th and 31st Congresses (1848-1850) began hiring newspaper reporters to cover the debates. This proved an imperfect strategy.

Partisanship was the principal problem, according to Don Ritchie, an associate historian in the Senate Historian's Office. These were the days before objectivity became a norm to which most American journalists aspired.

"The reporters would often report only the speeches of those people they favored," said Ritchie.

They were not only unfair, they were less than diligent.

"One reporter fell asleep during one speech and woke up during another and continued to report it as the words of the first man."

The Congress lumbered on with this system for a couple of decades, during which time the Government Printing Office was established (1860). About 10 years later, leaders of the 42nd Congress decided the reports might be more accurate if the whole operation was done in-house, so to speak. Thus the Congressional Record was brought into being, and its first issue reported the legislative events of March 4, 1873.

It has come out every day since.

Some critics

Not everyone in Washington whose business depends on keeping up with what happens on the Hill is full of praise for the Congressional Record. Charlie Peters, editor of the political magazine The Washington Monthly, isn't.

"I hardly use it at all," he says. "I found that as an expenditure of time to my staff, it just wasn't worth the effort. It was better to follow the papers."

Peters has another criticism: In the Congressional Record, members of Congress can edit the record of what they say on the floor. "They have a chance to cover up when they make fools of themselves," he says.

Lee W. Horwich, editor of Roll Call, one of the newspapers that devotes itself to covering Capitol Hill, called the Congressional Record "a record of what Congress wants it to be." (Horwich formerly was national editor of The Sun.)

Al Eisley, editor of The Hill, which also covers Congress, regards the Record as "a gold mine of stories, an essential part of the legislative process," but he adds that "it's a bit artificial, in that members can clean up their language."

Journalists are not the only ones to complain about this practice. In 1990 a Republican congressman from Pennsylvania, Robert Walker, charged that the record was being edited in such a way that distorted the picture. He was referring to a debate between a Republican and a Democrat, recalled Ritchie. "When [the Democrat] later changed her remarks in the Record, it changed the meaning of the Republican's response."

Walker and five other Republicans took their argument to federal court, but the case went unheard. The judiciary regarded it as an internal congressional matter.

There have been other embarrassments. Democratic Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, who holds the Congressional Record in high regard, nevertheless complained in 1980 about typos.

"In one speech, for example, I made a reference to politicians 'kissing babies,' which, to my dismay, appeared in the Record as 'killing babies.' "

He used this example to justify the policy of allowing members to edit.

The right of revision precedes even John Quincy Adams' arrival in the House in 1831; Adams, ever conscious of posterity, was an assiduous reviser of his own remarks. But members' reasons for revisions did not always have to do with making one's self look good.

"Revisions are designed to avoid embarrassment," Ritchie said. Or sometimes more perilous consequences.

"It used to be in the 19th century that, when a senator spoke intemperately of a colleague, that when they struck it from the record it was considered an apology. In those days, they fought duels."

Revisions

The guidelines on revisions, according to Chief Reporter Kavulick, permit grammatical changes, but "no changes of substance." He tends to think most members of Congress abide by the rule, though he doesn't have too much time to check each day.

The changes must be made by the senator or House member who made the speech, or an aide, within three hours of the speech -- that is, before the transcript goes to the printer. Kavulick estimates that 10 to 15 of the 100 senators regularly avail themselves of this privilege.

Sen. Byrd is one of the more frequent correctors. "He's a stickler for accuracy," Kavulick said -- just the opposite of one of Byrd's well-known former colleagues: According to Kavulick, "Barry Goldwater always said, 'If I said it, I'm stuck with it.' "

Occasionally a member will read only a page or two of a long speech and leave the rest for inclusion, as if read. Though this saves time on the floor, it tends to expand the size of the daily Congressional Record.

Nor does it fool constituents or other parties interested in the subject, if that is the intention of the speaker. The undelivered part of the speech is always differentiated from the spoken part, either by a different typeface or a large black dot.

Kavulick estimates that 20 percent of the material in the average issue of the Record is put in later. Also, in the last few years, any senator who wants to insert more than two pages of material has to announce how much the cost of printing it would be. This rule has had a restraining effect.

The ban on illustrations goes back 85 years. It was triggered by a populist senator from South Carolina, Benjamin Tillman, who inserted an editorial cartoon from the New York World into the Record of Oct. 3, 1913. It was called "Sen. Tillman's Allegorical Cow," and showed a huge bovine standing over the United States, stretching from the Mississippi to the Atlantic Ocean.

"It was a pointed political message that the Eastern bankers were milking the Midwestern farmers," said Ritchie. "It was shocking. They decided it affected the decorum of the record. They also feared the effect the editorial cartoons would have."

To this day no similar illustration has appeared. This is not entirely surprising. Though members of congress may be devotees of decorum, being politicians it is likely that they harbor the historical animus so many of their kind have toward the work of political cartoonists, beginning with William Marcy Tweed, the Tammany Hall boss who, bedeviled by the aggressive cartoons of Thomas Nast, declared in 1871:

"I don't care so much what the papers write about me. My constituents can't read."

The constituents of today's members of Congress can read, or most of them, to some degree, depending on the state. And while it is unlikely that any of the people's representatives on the Hill are as blatantly dishonest as was "Boss" Tweed, still the old Tammany tiger's mentality seems to endure:

"Stop them damn pictures!"

Pub Date: 1/25/99

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
46°