Speaker’s Lobby: A No-Write Zone?

Posted November 19, 2004 at 6:48pm

Complete this sentence: Reporters are a) too noisy, b) too nosy, c) too numerous, d) too nicotine-addled, or e) too naked.

According to Members who have complained over the years about the press corps’ behavior in the Speaker’s Lobby, the correct answer is: f) all of the above.

Rep. Steve Buyer seems to have had enough. The Indiana Republican proposed last week that reporters be banned from the Lobby — the long room directly behind the House chamber where scribes wait for their Congressional prey.

Buyer made his proposal last Wednesday, at the end of a Republican Conference meeting that felt, to Members who were present, like it might go on through Thanksgiving. Because of this, few lawmakers or aides were still in the room when Buyer made his suggestion.

During the Conference meeting, he suggested that the room was better suited to hosting private meetings between lawmakers, rather than its current use.

Buyer spokeswoman Laura Zuckerman said that the proposal was not about reporters’ behavior but rather about giving lawmakers “a place to go when they need to discuss legislation or other issues.”

On the other side of the Capitol, Senators can go to the Marble Room for that purpose. And while House Members have cloakrooms, they are divided by party. Converting the Speaker’s Lobby, Zuckerman said, would promote “comity and bipartisanship.”

At this point, there is no indication that Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) intends to change the rules in his Lobby. While not commenting on the merits of Buyer’s proposal, Hastert spokesman John Feehery said, “I know of no efforts to do that.”

Over the years, the Speaker’s Office or the gallery staff have had to remind reporters in the Lobby not to talk on their cell phones (even though Members can) not to smoke (even though Members can), not to carry large bags, not to block the doors, not to carry tape recorders and not to wear revealing clothing.

Despite all of those infractions, few House Members seem to share Buyer’s view that the press should be removed.

Rep. Tim Holden (D-Pa.) said that he had never found the phalanx of reporters to be a problem.

“If I want to avoid you guys, I just go out the other door,” he said, adding that he was rarely mobbed by the press anyway. “I guess I’m just not enough of a big shot. Nobody bothers me.”

Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), a smoker and a frequent presence in the Lobby, said that he has no problems with the current setup, pointing out that having reporters nearby can be useful for Members when they want to get their messages out in the media.

He added that despite the periodic efforts by come lawmakers, he doesn’t think smoking will be banned in the Lobby either — but that if it was, he could handle it.

“I’d just go out on the balcony,” he said.

Another regular visitor, Rep. John McHugh (R-N.Y.), said, “I think by and large, the interaction is a positive thing.”

Asked whether there’s anything at all he would change about the room or its rules, McHugh pointed to the ornate hearth and said, “They could build a fire more often.”

Some lawmakers suggested that the Lobby represents a lofty symbol of democracy.

“The Constitution does tend to provide you guys with a unique place,” said Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), even though the document does not specifically identify that “place” as the Lobby rather than, say, the new Capitol Visitor Center.

According to a history compiled by the Architect of the Capitol’s Office of the Curator, the area that is now the Lobby was added when the Capitol’s south wing was constructed between 1851 and 1857.

Originally, the area was made up of three rooms — H-212, H-213 and H-214 — but in 1879 the walls were knocked down, creating the Members Retiring Room. It was designed to be, according to the Architect’s history, “an open, airy space that would facilitate the ventilation of the House chamber.”

Initially, the room was a favorite hangout of lobbyists. (The same was true of the lobbies just outside the British House of Commons; thus was born the term “lobbyist.”)

Eventually, lobbyists were banned and replaced by hordes of reporters, though restrictions were placed on their behavior.

Until the rules were revised in 1990 to allow radio correspondents to conduct interviews at a designated table, reporters were not allowed to bring tape recorders into the Lobby.

The ban stemmed from fears that — as then-Rep. Bob Walker (R-Pa.) put it in 1990 — “you could have the use of very sensitive microphones there that could record private conversations” in the lobby itself or even on the edge of the House Floor closest to the lobby doors.

While Members have long had opinions about what reporters should and shouldn’t do in the room, Buyer’s suggestion that they be banned altogether seems not to have inspired much passion or debate.

Asked what he thought of the proposal, Rep. David Hobson (R-Ohio) paused for a moment. Then he decided, “I don’t care.”