Game of 535 thrones: Reflections from working under the rotunda

Why We Wrote This

Congressional correspondent Francine Kiefer is moving on to a new beat as the Monitor’s West Coast bureau chief. Here she shares some of what she learned during her more than five years on Capitol Hill. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Monitor congressional correspondent Francine Kiefer (center on l.) joins other journalists interviewing Missouri Republican Sen. Roy Blunt at the Capitol on March 26 in Washington.

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I have loved reporting on Congress, even in the most polarized atmosphere in my nearly four decades in journalism. Every vote is an opportunity to speak directly with lawmakers. It’s a daily attempt to explain the 535 people and forces shaping policy and politics.

I once asked former congressional correspondent Gail Russell Chaddock for advice on maintaining evenhandedness. Get to know the lawmakers’ back stories, she said. What made them who they are? When you understand that, you don’t judge, you just explain.

When you know, for instance, that as a 2-year-old battling polio, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was confined to his bed and under a strict therapy regimen for two long years, you understand his patient plotting as an adult. When you know that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had five babies in six years, and sometimes didn’t even have time to wash her face during the day, you understand why she’s so confident she can corral her fractious caucus.

While it’s time for me to be moving on, Hill reporters consider their beat the best in Washington, and I have to agree.

When I tell people that I cover Congress, I get looks ranging from horror to sympathy.

“How can you stand it?” they typically ask.

But it’s not a matter of having to stand anything. I have loved reporting on Congress, even in the most polarized atmosphere in my nearly four decades in journalism. Nowhere else in Washington does a reporter have such access to power – certainly not at the White House, where I covered the presidencies of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

On the Hill, every vote in the House or Senate chamber is an opportunity to speak directly with lawmakers. They stream out of their offices like ants from a colony with an infinite number of comments and criticisms for newsgatherers. Almost guaranteed, Rep. Mark Meadows, the hard-line conservative Republican from North Carolina who talks frequently with President Donald Trump, can be found lingering in the chandeliered Speaker’s Lobby or a nearby corridor during or after a House vote. He’s not one to let a media opportunity go to waste. Democrat Nancy Pelosi of California and other leaders hold weekly press conferences, and if you time it right, you can exit when she does, finding yourself side by side for an exclusive comment instead of trailing at the back of the pack, hopelessly trying to keep up with the House speaker in stilettos.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
The fresco on the dome of the U.S. Capitol rotunda, which features George Washington, is a paean to the nation’s founding ideals.

The “how can you stand it” question, depending on who is asking, also implies that I must hate having to be around those awful Republicans or Democrats. But it’s not a question of liking or disliking a politician or political party. I may be within inches of a senator’s face talking privately, or in a crushing scrum with other reporters, but it’s not personal. Rather, it’s a daily search to explain the people and forces shaping policy and politics. I liken it to eighth-grade science class (sometimes more eighth grade than science), when I looked through a microscope at various squiggly bits and tried to identify the mitochondria, “the powerhouse of the cell” that makes everything happen.

You also can’t top the Capitol as a workplace. Up on the third floor in the Senate press gallery, my cubicle barely fits a laptop and tiny flat-screen TV, let alone take-out meals from the basement cafe on taco-salad Thursdays. But we work under a glass ceiling decorated with dancing cherubs, just steps from a spectacular view of the U.S. Supreme Court. Walking alone through the silent rotunda after the tourists have left offers a hallowed reminder of the founding of America and its unique system of checks and balances – a system that acts as the guardian of the Republic, despite its attendant frustrations. Look up to the frescoed, soaring dome, and you will find George Washington depicted as a near deity. 

Hill reporters consider their beat the best in Washington, and I have to agree. But I had a hard time understanding why until I became the Monitor’s congressional correspondent more than five years ago. Indeed, this was the one assignment that I did not want.

Karen Norris/Staff

In mid-October 2013, the Monitor’s D.C. bureau was in temporary digs at the National Press Club, and I was editor of the opinion page. I was launching a new guest commentary series called “Common Ground, Common Good.” Republicans in Congress and President Barack Obama were locked in a stalemate over the Affordable Care Act – “Obamacare” – and the budget, resulting in a partial government shutdown that had been grinding on since Oct. 1. Common ground seemed a distant shore.

The shutdown occurred in the context of epic partisan battles over taxes, spending, and the national debt, with memories of the previous winter’s “fiscal cliff” and threats of debt default still fresh. No wonder that Americans, according to one survey, viewed cockroaches, root canals, and traffic jams more favorably than Congress. I was right there with them.

But on day 16, I thought the lassitude might be lifting. I looked up from my desk at the television and walked over to the big screen. Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader at the time, was speaking on the Senate floor. The Democrat from Nevada announced that he and the Republican minority leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, had reached a deal to end the stalemate.

“Senator McConnell and I have sat in very, very serious discussions the last few days,” said a somber Mr. Reid in his trademark wispy voice. “We’re going to do everything we can to change the atmosphere in the Senate and accomplish things that need to be done for our country.”

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Monitor congressional reporter Francine Kiefer walks to her car after a day of reporting at the Capitol.

Could they be serious? Suddenly the Monitor’s vacant Congress slot, which had gone unfilled for some time, came to mind. Perhaps the relationship between Republicans and Democrats had reached its nadir. Like the reunification of Germany – which I had covered as the Monitor’s Germany bureau chief – maybe the two parties could move from Cold War to cooperation. Surely, things couldn’t get any worse.

I threw my hat in the ring and shortly thereafter was on the Hill – just in time to witness a day of high, partisan drama. Wow! Mr. Reid was on the Senate floor taking one of the ultimate confrontational actions, triggering the “nuclear option.”

On Nov. 21, Democrats decided unilaterally to change the Senate rules so that Republicans, who were then in the minority, could no longer filibuster, or block, President Obama’s federal judges and other executive nominees. It was a blow against minority-party rights in the name of expediency. From that point on, it would take only a simple majority vote for confirmation of nominees. The only exception would be for Supreme Court justices.

How wrong I had been about the possibility of political détente. Republicans were furious at Mr. Reid’s maneuver – but they would have their revenge.

Capitol Hill is like a university campus, a sprawling network of buildings complete with underground tunnels and even its own subway system. It’s easy to get lost, and freshman lawmakers often do. The same goes for new reporters, which is why I was grateful for tips and tours from previous Monitor congressional correspondents when I started.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Monitor congressional correspondent Francine Kiefer (in green) and other journalists interview Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y..

Former reporter David Grant showed me the quickest way from the Senate to the House. It is to follow the third-floor corridor closest to the Supreme Court and Library of Congress – otherwise it’s a tourist traffic jam through the Capitol rotunda and Statuary Hall on the second floor. Gail Russell Chaddock warned me to hold the banister on the marble staircase or I might slip dashing down to catch a senator after a floor speech.

But what I valued most was her advice on how to keep your own opinions in check.

A reporter’s job description is to be fair and balanced. I’m particularly sensitive to this in the “fake news” era, and also because the Monitor was founded in 1908 in part to combat the sensationalist yellow journalism of the times.

As a White House reporter, I could regulate my fairness meter fairly easily. After all, it’s essentially one person you’re covering. But Congress is 535 people. Key members and groups develop reputations for being good or bad, talkative or tentative. They become caricatures in the public mind.

I asked Gail how she maintained evenhandedness and her answer became the key to my coverage: Get to know the lawmakers’ back story; learn the formative events and people in their lives. What made them who they are? When you understand that, you don’t judge, you just explain.

When you know, for instance, that as a 2-year-old battling polio, Mr. McConnell was confined to his bed and under a strict therapy regimen for two long years, you understand his patient plotting as an adult. Indeed, his memoir is titled “The Long Game.”

When you know that Mr. Reid grew up in dire poverty in Searchlight, Nevada, his alcoholic father committing suicide and his mother doing laundry for nearby brothels, you understand why the former boxer was such a scrapper as a politician – and big supporter of Obamacare. He had saved up at one point to buy his mother false teeth.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Ms. Kiefer eats lunch while working in her tiny cubicle in the Senate press gallery.

When you know that Ms. Pelosi had five babies in six years, and sometimes didn’t even have time to wash her face during the day, you understand why she’s so confident she can corral her fractious caucus.

The fairness question has become even more of an issue in the Trump presidency, and I hear about it from readers or when I’m out on the campaign trail talking with voters. They don’t trust the media; they sometimes don’t want to talk to me.

That’s exactly what I encountered as the 2016 presidential campaign intensified. I was reporting on a tight Senate race in North Carolina, a swing state, just before Labor Day and had met up with the Democratic challenger at a bookstore meet-and-greet. But I had no success in shadowing the Republican incumbent, who didn’t plan to campaign until closer to Election Day.

Karen Norris/Staff

I checked the state GOP website for events where I might likely find Republican voters. Perfect. The Republican Women of Cary & Southwestern Wake – in suburban Raleigh – were holding their monthly luncheon at the Prestonwood Country Club. Suburban women voters can decide elections. Of course, these women would be reliable GOP supporters, not swing voters, but talking with them would give me insight into the suburban mindset.

That is, if they would talk with me. Although I had permission to attend the event, several complained about the biased media when I approached them in the buffet line. I had to work at building trust, telling them about the Monitor’s reputation for fairness, about my interest in observing and understanding, not opining. I promised to send each person I talked with a link to my story, and they could judge for themselves.

Trust established, their views flowed freely, and I ended up writing a story entirely about the luncheon and the women’s attitudes toward Mr. Trump. It was at this luncheon, overlooking a vast, 54-hole championship golf course, that I got my first clue that the TV celebrity and real estate tycoon could actually win. Pundits weren’t predicting it, but if they had lunched with this group, they might have thought otherwise.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
An elevator marked ‘senators only’ operates on one side of the Capitol. Parts of the building are off-limits to the press and visitors.

As the women sipped their iced tea, one of them, Angela Hawkins, announced that she had Trump signs available to distribute – but with a caveat. Ms. Hawkins explained that voters may not want to display them. Many had told her privately that they were too embarrassed to put the signs on their lawns. But they had reassured her that once inside the privacy of the voting booth, they would mark their ballots for Mr. Trump.

And they did. It was close, but Mr. Trump won North Carolina by 3.6 percentage points.

Compromise is the key to making Congress work. If you don’t want to take my word for it, take the word of the Founding Fathers, who set up a system that can’t function without it. And if you don’t want to take their word for it, take a ride in the black Lincoln SUV of Don Landoll in Marysville, Kansas (pop. 3,271).

Mr. Landoll’s namesake company manufactures farm equipment in a flat expanse just south of the Nebraska border. His small town has an interesting history – first stop on the Pony Express and a hub for the Union Pacific railroad. In the fall of 2015, I found myself on a driving tour of Marysville with Mr. Landoll at the wheel; his congressman, Tim Huelskamp, riding shotgun; and the mayor of Marysville and me in the back seat.

I had traveled to this enormous congressional district – the “big First” – to tag along with Republican Representative Huelskamp and learn why his supporters liked him so much. Mr. Huelskamp, a staunch tea partyer, had firmly backed the federal government shutdown two years before. His unbending stance, which some described as obstreperous, had gotten him kicked off the Agriculture Committee by the leadership of his own party. It was the first time in more than a century that Kansas had been without someone on the all-important ag committee.

Mr. Huelskamp wore his ideological rigidity like a badge of honor, and his supporters loved him for it. But that day in Mr. Landoll’s SUV quickly showed the downside of being an uncompromising congressman. As we drove from Marysville’s updated municipal airport to the new hospital and the recently constructed highway overpass and airport access road, Mr. Landoll repeated a similar line – that a lot of federal dollars had gone into every one of those projects.

He didn’t directly say it, but the message from this businessman was clear: Lawmakers such as Mr. Huelskamp may rail against government, but the fact is that rural America depends on it. Shutting down the government dries up dollars and fuels uncertainty. That’s not good for business, nor is a vote against the farm bill from someone who represents a big farm state.

In 2016, the tea party congressman was defeated in the primary by a more pragmatic Republican. It was a painful rebuke to Mr. Huelskamp, but a reminder that voters – most voters, anyway – want Washington to work, and that requires give-and-take.

Covering Congress requires strategizing, from knowing where to physically place yourself to making conscious wardrobe choices. For instance, on press conference Tuesdays, I don my Kelly-green blazer and pink reading glasses. They stand out in a sea of mostly dark outfits, and I almost always get called on if I have a question.

It also helps to learn the habits of lawmakers – that Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas likes to get his exercise and count his daily steps (which makes him a good target for a “walk-and-talk” interview), or that on controversial news days, senators often exit the chamber via an obscure staircase to avoid most of the media.

Elections mean new lawmakers and new strategies. Now that Democrats control the House, a good place to intercept new members is outside the women’s restroom just steps from the House floor – since this is the largest freshman class of women ever elected.

But I wasn’t prepared for the mayhem that ensued when Mr. Trump became president. News organizations flooded the Hill with reinforcements. Reporters crowded the halls and accosted and surrounded lawmakers as they squeezed through doorways or down staircases.

Suddenly, stanchions and ropes appeared to cordon off the media. Those quiet opportunities to chat privately with a member became rare, while lawmakers and their staffs struggled to keep pace with the almost daily – and sometimes hourly – controversies surrounding the president.

Things have quieted down somewhat. The unpredictability from @realDonaldTrump has become a predictable fact of life for politicians and the media. In the Capitol, the focus is now on the House, where newly empowered Democrats are exercising their “check” on the executive. Meanwhile, the presidential campaign is well underway.

Karen Norris/Staff

Time for me to be moving on.

In 1932, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis popularized the idea that states are “laboratories of democracy” – test tubes for “social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.”

As polarization and gridlock grip Washington, that’s especially true today. Members of Congress excel at blocking the opposing party or the executive branch, even as they seem to be losing the art of legislating. With some variations – including the first two years under President Trump, which saw the most laws enacted in a decade – the overall trend line of lawmaking is down over the past 30 years, according to an analysis by the Pew Research Center.

Measuring productivity according to laws enacted is, of course, far from a perfect way to judge the effectiveness of America’s representatives and their presidents. Consider that nearly a third of the legislative output in the last Congress was ceremonial laws, such as renaming post offices and courthouses, says Pew. And many Americans share the view that the less Congress does, the better.

Yet gridlock has left serious national challenges unaddressed, and that’s where the states come in. Across the country, they’re stepping into the void left by Washington in their own way – on guns, marijuana, health care, the wage gap, climate, infrastructure, immigration.

Now the Monitor is sending me to the biggest state of them all, California, the world’s fifth-largest economy. Its newly elected Democratic governor, Gavin Newsom, is determined to make the Golden State the political inverse of the Trump presidency, on issues from health care to immigration. For me, it’s a homecoming of sorts. Although I’ll be based in the Los Angeles area, I once worked in Silicon Valley as the national editor for The San Jose Mercury News.

Just as Justice Brandeis’ “laboratories” analogy has become something of a cliché, so too has the idea that what starts in California eventually rolls east. Former Democratic strategist Robert Shrum, at the University of Southern California, though, believes the truism still holds up. “Through many ideological iterations, from Earl Warren, to Richard Nixon, to Ronald Reagan, to Jerry Brown, to Dianne Feinstein, California has set the pace for the country,” he says.

In the most polarized atmosphere in decades, I’m looking forward to finding out whether California – and the West Coast more broadly – will spread its influence. Or whether it is becoming an island unto itself. I also want to see what Washington looks like at a distance, from the land of tanned torsos and top-down cars.

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