Daily Dugouts

Posted January 17, 2003 at 1:08pm

Reporters routinely keep track of how often presidents hold press conferences, formal and informal, and complain when they start getting rare. On the Hill, where Members usually are accessible — indeed, hungry for publicity — there’s no need to complain. Until now.

The House Republican leadership plans to downgrade the responsibility for conducting regular briefings for the media from the Majority Leader to the Conference chairwoman — from the No. 2 person in the leadership to the No. 4 person. For several years, Majority Leader Dick Armey (Texas) met with reporters at noon each Tuesday to impart his best estimate of the floor schedule and leadership thinking. The contact also gave him and the media the opportunity for exchange about Armey’s distinctive views, which he often expressed pungently and quotably.

We mean no disparagement of Conference Chairwoman Deborah Pryce’s (Ohio) skills as a communicator, but it’s likely to make a difference in the quality of communication if the word comes from someone actually making policy rather than someone who’s basically delivering messages. The GOP plan evidently is that Majority Leader Tom DeLay (Texas) will appear intermittently when he feels it’s important to clarify leadership’s position or when he feels moved to make a personal statement.

On the basis of his record over the past few years, we’re afraid we’ll see little of DeLay, who’s the chief strategist and policy czar in the leadership. Often accused of harboring “extreme” conservative views and of practicing ultra-hardball political tactics, DeLay made himself largely unavailable to the media as Majority Whip.

Now, we’d urge him to resurface and be visible as Majority Leader. He may fear he’d become a handy target for Democratic attack, but he’d also be able to explain his views and maybe persuade the public that his views are not so extreme after all. If Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld can become a media hit, why not DeLay? The same goes for Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), who customarily holds press briefings only every two or three months.

We don’t know what the briefing schedule will be on the Senate side, but we hope that Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) will follow the pattern set by former GOP leader Trent Lott (Miss.), who held “dugout” sessions nearly every day. As Majority Leader, Sen. Thomas Daschle (D-S.D.) matched Lott for much of his tenure. But over the past few months his briefings have come to be known as “the weekly dugout.”

Given Democratic complaints that they’re being “out-communicated” by the GOP, we’d anticipate — and hope for — daily sessions with Daschle again. In fact, if daily dugouts can be the rule in the Senate, why not in the House, too, inasmuch as it’s supposed to be the body closest to the people?