Joel Breitner, a veteran Senate reporter of debates, shows off his stenotype machine. Breitner and his colleagues are responsible for taking down the words spoken by Senators on the floor.
As a court reporter for the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, Melinda Walker spent a year and a half taking down the gruesome details of one of the most brutal genocides in history.
Now, the effervescent Texan spends her days recording the words of American politicians mired in the minutiae of budget battles and entitlement programs.
And she couldn’t be happier.
“It’s not as traumatizing,” she says, adding that she enjoys being at the center of each day’s news cycle.
Walker is one of just a handful of official reporters of debates — an elite corps that puts in up to 14-hour days to make sure that Members’ words and thoughts are preserved for posterity in the Congressional Record.
By most accounts, it’s one of the toughest jobs on Capitol Hill. It’s mentally and physically taxing, with few rewards and little public recognition.
“We’re supposed to be invisible,” Susan Hanback, the House’s chief reporter, says matter-of-factly.
Completing the Puzzle
Jerry Linnell, a shaggy-haired, suspender-wearing self-described bachelor who moved to Washington, D.C., from Minnesota more than 40 years ago to work as a court reporter, serves as the Senate’s chief reporter. He compares each day’s process of transcribing and compiling the Record to “putting a puzzle together.”
The first piece is the ongoing reportorial “relay” on the Senate floor.
With stenotype machines slung around their necks like accordions, reporters such as Mary Jane McCarthy, a 17-year veteran of the Senate’s eight-person team, move around the chamber to where Senators are speaking, taking care to stay just out of camera range. She relies on subtle — and a few not so subtle — signals to let the previous reporter know she’s there to relieve them, such as a sharp “OK.”
When her 10-minute turn concludes, she yields the floor to a colleague, then returns to her office to pop her stenotype disk into a computer, which transforms the notes into readable prose. (In the House, where reporters are wired into the sound system and seated at a stenotype machine in the front of the chamber, turns last 15 minutes.)
After McCarthy edits her text, she sends it to one of four expert transcribers who offer additional polishing. Following another read, she forwards it on to Linnell, who, as chief reporter, is responsible for poring over each transcript with a careful eye. Once it passes muster, the text is sent to the Government Printing Office.
“Sometimes a few minutes can take two hours in production,” Linnell says. “Sometimes 10 minutes can be done in an hour.”