Slate’s Jim Newell on reporting on Congress.

“No Time for Pleasantries”: What It’s Like to Report on Congress

“No Time for Pleasantries”: What It’s Like to Report on Congress

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Dec. 13 2017 6:07 PM

What It’s Like to Report on Congress

Slate’s Jim Newell on covering all the drama on Capitol Hill.

The U.S. Capitol Building is pictured on July 27, 2017 in Washington, DC.
The U.S. Capitol on July 27.

Zach Gibson/Getty Images

It’s never been an easy job covering the ins and outs of Congress, but with the Republicans making multiple efforts to kill the Affordable Care Act earlier this summer and recently passing their tax bill in the Senate in a late-night vote, it’s safe to say it’s been quite a year.

In this S+ Extra podcast, which is exclusive to Slate Plus members, Chau Tu talks with Slate staff writer Jim Newell, who’s been covering all the drama on Capitol Hill.

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This transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Chau Tu: Can you take us into a typical day going up to Capitol Hill and reporting?

Jim Newell: On Mondays I usually go in late because that's the day that they're [Congress people] all flying in from their districts and states and they hold a late afternoon vote in both the House and the Senate usually. That's when I go and just ask people about whatever I need to ask them about whatever's going on. You know, just their reactions to whatever Trump tweeted over the weekend or anything like that. Tuesdays are a very busy day. They have these lunches—the Republicans and Democrats each have these caucus lunches in the Senate at least, and afterwards they each give a press conference. So those are very busy and that's where you start about the agenda for the rest of the week.

Wednesday and Thursday, there's usually some votes. Usually the way capitol reporters go about getting their stories is whenever members—either in the House or the Senate—are coming back and forth from their offices to the capitol for votes, that's when they all rush in and that's when you could sort of run up to them and ask them whatever you want to ask them. That's where a lot of the reporting gets done. You probably have 45 seconds from when they get off the subway to when they reach the elevator and you just get in there quickly. No time for pleasantries, just say what you're going to say.

I mean, some senators and congressmen like to talk a lot. Like Bob Corker, who is retiring, we'll just stand around and talk forever. Others don't, so you just have to be very quick. But it's a lot of that. I mean, when I started doing it, it was surprising how physical it was, especially there's a huge crowd of people like you have to rush your way through there and try not to get hurt.

But they usually don't have any other people around them? It's just them; they don't have an entourage?

No, it's just them. Sometimes they have an aide or two with them, but some just walk by themselves and you can just walk right in their faces and ask them whatever you want, which is a rarity in D.C. right now, or in anything where you're covering—I guess we'll call them celebrities nowadays.

So did you have to learn a lot of faces, a lot of names really, really quickly?

Yes, and I'm still in the process of doing that. I know every member of the Senate, but the House, I still don't have it all down. Every time I go over to the House, I try to remember two or three more people, just so I have it down. But yeah, it's much harder in the House, I don't know. Especially in the Republican side, it's just a lot of old white guys. You sort of mix them up a little bit.

Do you have a particularly memorable or favorite story from your reporting this year? Anything that surprised you, maybe?

My favorite things to do are to watch a vote, like a really critical vote where there might be drama on the floor. So when they opening the health care debate in the Senate, they have to do this procedural vote to start debating the bill. This was on the health care bill, so they needed 50 Republican votes and they got up to 48. And then Ron Johnson, he's a senator from Wisconsin and he has a grudge against Mitch McConnell because McConnell thought he was going to lose his reelection last year and gave up on him and he came back and won anyway. [Johnson] comes on, he hasn't voted and he just starts talking to Mitch McConnell, who doesn't usually get animated. You could see Mitch McConnell getting red in the face. I was trying to read his lips and McConnell, he looked like he was saying, "Are you kidding me right now?" So it looked like Johnson might kill this bill before it even got debates started.

But what ended up happening was John McCain came back. It was his first reappearance on the Senate floor since he had been diagnosed with cancer. So he came and he voted yes and Ron Johnson was like, well I can't very well vote no now.

I mean, that's something where I just sort of wrote a play-by-play of the story and a lot of people liked that one, and I enjoy doing that. I enjoy just observing them once it's out there in the open public and you can't really pick up everything just from watching it on C-SPAN.

Yeah, it's the behind-the-scenes stuff that you can keep an eye on where it doesn't really get into the story later on or headlines later on. So, you wrote a great cover story for Slate last month about why Democratic leaders don't want to talk about impeaching Trump. Not to give away your whole article, but what are Democrats scared of?

Well Democrats—and I think reasonably enough—recognize that a lot of the GOP agenda is unpopular. The health care bill was unpopular. The tax reform bill is probably going to pass, but still only about 30 percent of the public supports it. So there's a lot of this, and next year they're going to talk about going after Medicaid or Medicare or something. This is unpopular stuff. Democrats want to just focus on that because I think that's the best way to resonate with a lot of working class voters up in the Great Lakes region, who they lost to Trump in the election last year. They think that this is the most straightforward way to get back to majority.

Impeachment, if you pursue impeachment or make that, say, during the campaign, ‘if we take back the House, we're going to impeach Donald Trump,’ you're going to unite Republicans who voted for Trump to all come back and support their president again. So they think it's a distraction, Democratic leaders. They think it's a distraction even though a lot of them think and will say, ‘we don't think Donald Trump is fit to be president,’ but they don't want to hold a vote to remove him.

And there's actually this one part in the article you wrote that Tom Steyer, who is the Democratic biggest donor, he laughed at 17 seconds at a question you asked. Did you time that?

I did time that. Well, because he starts laughing and honestly it was a bit performative; he was like, ‘Ha ha ha.’ Once it was going on for a few seconds, I was like OK, well let’s watch this. I just remembered it was long and then I had the recorder and just listened to it afterwards. I had asked him—because Tom Steyer just did this big impeachment campaign, and put up $10 million of his money to run ads—I just said, ‘Did you give Democratic leaders a heads up before this?’ And that's, you know…

That's when he laughed. And so that campaign, it did end up failing, right?

So one member, this guy Al Green, a Democratic congressmen from Houston, he introduced an impeachment resolution earlier in the year, I think in September, and he brought it up under so-called privileged rules where you can force a vote on it. He pulled back from forcing that vote in September but he tried again last week. He can't pick what vote to force, but he introduces it and forces a vote. The vote then is on a motion to table, i.e. a motion to disregard this impeachment resolution. And so 58—I think including Green—Democrats went along with, compared to like 370 or 360 or whatever it was, who voted to table it.

My editor asked me afterwards, is that about what you'd expect? And it's like, well I didn't do the whip count in my head or anything like that, but yeah, it seems like a lot of Democrats who voted to table that, it didn't seem like the base was really mad at them last week. We'll see how much interest there is in impeachment as things go and new revelations maybe from this Russia probe come out. But it seems like a lot of the Democrats are fine with putting impeachment on the back burner right now.

What do you think are some of the bigger issues they are trying to push right now?

They're still trying to kill this tax reform bill, which, right now the House and Senate have each passed the bill and they're trying to negotiate a final bill that incorporates ideas from both. So Democrats are still trying to kill that, just calling it tax cuts for the rich, which it is. I mean a lot of people will get tax cuts next year, they'll sort of phase out as time is going on. So Democrats, you know, they're making a last-ditch effort to do that.

I think their message against the Republicans next year is the Republicans are looting the government to give back to their donors. They're trying to take health care away. They're trying to take entitlements away and just giving huge tax cuts to the wealthy. That's the hyperbolized version, but not by much. I think they see that as pretty potent.

You were covering a lot of the back and forths between that tax bill. I mean, what was that late-night vote like—you were there?

Yeah, I was there. The final vote was around 2 a.m. on a Friday night—totally awesome Friday night I had a couple of weeks ago. It was clear earlier in the day, probably around noon or 1, the Republicans had the votes they needed to pass the bill. So then you sort of had to go through all these procedural hoops. What I'm trying to say is, I was whining pretty much the entire day because it was like, we all know how this is going to end.

Did you expect it to go that late?

No, it kept getting pushed back. They were like, well maybe we'll start amendment process at around six o'clock and then we'll be out of here by nine. I was like, OK that's fine, but then it kept getting pushed back and a lot of that was because Republicans were still writing the bill, because they had just made these final agreements earlier in the day about what final changes they were going to make to get all the votes and then they were still writing. So that's why we were there until two in the morning. I mean the vote itself was pretty drama-free, just because you knew where all the chips were going to land, but it was interesting—there were some interesting amendment votes during the process too.

And the marked-up copy of the bill—did you see that when it came out?

Yeah, the one with all the handwritten notes scribbled in the side. I didn't get a paper copy but when the finance committee, when their press office emailed the version they were voting on—I figured that one with all the handwritten notes or whatever was just something like an advanced copy, like the galleys almost, that they were sending out to members. But that was actually the document that the finance committee sent out.

The official thing.

Yeah. I've seen amendments before where things are X'd things out, but not on a major overhaul of the tax code. And Democrats made a lot of hay of it; there obviously was a lot coordination going on among the communication shops on the Democrats’ side because they all put out videos of them trying to make out the handwriting and everything. They all put these videos out the same time. There was a lot of then mockery. And like, oh whatever, the Democrats are just putting on a show. They've seen handwriting in margins before. But as soon as they passed the bill, then they found a bunch of errors in the bill. So it was rushed and it did cause them problems that they're having to fix now.

How do you keep up between what you see on social media and Twitter and what you're actually seeing when you're reporting? Do you try to look on Twitter while you're reporting?

Yeah, I try to just in case. If I'm staking out a room where Republican senators are and some news breaks, I want to make sure what that news is, because things can develop very quickly and you don't want to ask hour-old information.

What's the hardest part of your job, would you say?

Same with a lot of reporting jobs: just sourcing. Meeting enough people who you develop a relationship with and have mutual trust between to get information. Capitol Hill, it's almost like its own city, its own ecosystem and there are a lot of relationships up there. I'm trying to build daily relationships. It takes a little while to make inroads so I was very lucky to have editors who, the first few months, gave me some time to develop those.

Any big stories that you're going to be kind of following for the next year that you know of, or are you just kind of reacting to everything happening?

We're going to see. I mean they tried health care, now they're wrapping up taxes—those were their two big goals—so we'll see what they try to do next year. Obviously the closer you get to an election, your chances of passing major legislation sort of fade away. It looks like they may talk about entitlement reform, which if they actually do that will be a very big deal, so I'll be here for that. But I think next year—I pretty much go the Capitol every day now, and I probably won't do that as much next year. I'll probably cover more campaigns as the midterms pick up and just try to work on some longer term features once this, you know, the frenzy of these major bills has subsided. Trying to branch out a little bit more next year.