What's in the Congressional Record?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Nov. 21 2005 6:12 PM

What's in the Congressional Record?

Anything your congressman wants.

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Ohio Rep. Bob Ney: speaking on the Record
Click on image to enlarge.
Ohio Rep. Bob Ney: speaking on the Record
Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

Michael Scanlon, a former aide to Rep. Tom DeLay, was indicted on Friday for bribing a member of Congress with "a stream of things of value." In return, the congressman agreed to perform "a series of official acts," including the placement of comments in the Congressional Record. How does a member of Congress put something in the Congressional Record?

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He writes it down, signs his name, and hands the paper to a clerk. Anything a member of Congress says on the floor gets printed, more or less verbatim, in that day's Record. (Members do have the right to edit their words before publication.) But a congressman can also get material in the Record without saying it out loud. A senator can insert a document into the Record with unanimous consent, which is almost always granted. Members of the House don't even have to ask permission (though they sometimes do): They can choose instead to submit a signed copy of their comments directly to the House clerks.

Anything submitted to the clerks gets appended to the day's Congressional Record in the "Extensions of Remarks" section. (There are typically between a few dozen and a few hundred of these remarks in the Record every day.) The statements, once published, cannot exceed two pages in the document's small type—that's about five single-spaced, letter-sized pages. If a representative wants to publish a longer piece, she must ask permission on the floor of the House.

What kind of material goes in the extended remarks? Just about anything, as long as it begins with the phrase "Mr. Speaker." Members can insert personal apologies for missing votes or gripes with a law that just passed. They can honor institutions or individuals, like a high-school volleyball team that won the state finals. Remarks for the Congressional Record sometimes include long quotations—or even the full text—from a magazine or newspaper article.

The clerks and the printing office tend to publish material without question, though obscene material merits a call to the submitting member for confirmation. In 1989, Rep. Bill Dannemeyer of California inserted a graphic passage on the dangers of homosexuality. (To read an excerpt from the congressman's detailed disquisition, click here.) Dannemeyer's colleagues tried without success to remove his comments from the Record. (A precedent for expurgation had been set in 1921, after a lawmaker from Texas was found to have inserted "grossly indecent and obscene language, unworthy of a member of the House of Representatives.")

Why might Scanlon have bribed someone to insert a statement into the Congressional Record? Very few people read the Record, and nothing that's inserted in the extended remarks carries legislative authority. But an official statement in Congress could still be influential. Scanlon allegedly persuaded Rep. Bob Ney to insert criticism of the owner of SunCruz, a line of gambling boats. Scanlon's partner, the indicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff, was trying to buy SunCruz. He may have used Ney's official comments to drive down the price or to show the extent of his influence in Washington.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Larry Noble of the Center for Responsive Politics and Trudi Terry of the House of Representatives.

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