The Making of the Congressional Record: The Full Story

Posted May 27, 2005 at 5:35pm

When it comes to producing each day’s Congressional Record, the goal is nothing short of 100 percent accuracy, says Senate Chief Reporter Jerry Linnell.

In practice, that’s not always possible.

“Sometimes you can’t achieve that goal because of the desire of a Senator or staff,” Linnell concedes.

Which begs the question: Just how accurate a representation is the Record?

Senators have free rein to edit their copy as long as it doesn’t change the meaning of what was said, Linnell says. But he is quick to add that drastic alterations are unusual — “maybe once or twice where somebody got mad and maybe said something they wished they hadn’t.”

He continues, “We could give the public a 100 percent verbatim transcript, but this is not sworn testimony, and that’s the difference. The idea here is to get across to the public a Senator’s feelings about a subject. … And since the Senate is considered the upper chamber, we want to put them in the best light.”

Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), one of the Senate’s most fastidious correctors of the Record, defends the practice, pointing to 19th century Sen. Daniel Webster — considered “one of the greatest orators of all time” — who took transcripts of his statements home each night and reworked them “until he had gotten his own speech exactly as he wanted to be represented to the people.” (Byrd knows it pays to be careful: A reference to “kissing babies” by Byrd once appeared in the Record as “killing babies.”)

Other facets of the Record do not always appear exactly as they occurred. Senate speeches get moved around depending on where they best fit. Sometimes statements are included that were never read on the floor — all Senators have to do is slap the word “live” on the copy and, as long as they’re physically in town, the speech will be recorded as if they actually spoke it on the floor, says Linnell.

Similarly, a Senator may speak only a line or two on the floor and then request that his or her full statement be printed in full as if it were spoken. In the House, Members must ask permission to revise and extend their remarks for unspoken material. Statements not made in person may be included in a special section of the Record known as “extensions of remarks.”

Otherwise, black bullets in the Senate and special fonts in the House are used to indicate unspoken inclusions or changes. But it’s not a free-for-all. Anyone in either chamber who wants to include more than two pages of unread material, such as tributes and articles, must announce the cost of printing it.

Officially, Senators or their staffers wanting to edit remarks have a three-hour window in which to come into the office to make changes to their transcript on a computer set aside for this purpose, though “on occasion” Linnell admits, reluctantly, to having had to recall copy already sent to the Government Printing Office. (In the House, changes are still done on paper copies, which Members can pick up in the chamber or have them delivered via courier.)

Nowadays, Senators and Representatives rarely, if ever, stop by to correct their remarks as they did when the reporters’ offices were located closer to the floors. (House Reporters work out of subterranean quarters in the Capitol’s bowels, while Senate reporters have attic digs on the fourth floor.) Linnell estimates that only 15 to 20 Senators still make corrections to their statements with some frequency. To Linnell’s knowledge, Byrd is the only Senator to actually stop by the office in the past year.

After the Republican takeover of the House in 1995, rules were changed to allow only “technical, grammatical and typographical corrections,” House Chief Reporter Susan Hanback says. It wasn’t always that way.

Earlier in her career, Hanback recalls Members delivering one-minute speeches on the floor, then turning “in pieces of paper written totally differently.” Moreover, the addition of C-SPAN and closed captioning to the chambers has made it more likely that major changes will be noticed. “There are people out there who could have heard it,” says Senate Associate Historian Donald Ritchie of C-SPAN’s effect.

Still, over the years, there have been several high-profile reports of Members dramatically altering what was said on the floor, particularly in the House.

In 1993, during a debate on a family-planning bill, then-Rep. Gerald Solomon (R-N.Y.) famously responded to Rep. Louise Slaughter’s (D-N.Y.) request for an order to cut off debate by declaring, “What did you say? You are trying to shut me off? You had better not do that, ma’am. You will regret that as long as you live.”

Fast forward to the following day, when Solomon’s statement in the Record more temperately read: “I will say to the gentlelady, for whom I have the greatest respect, I would hope that she or any other member not try to cut off another member when a serious matter like this is trying to be resolved here in the proper House.”

As a rule, the Record excludes illustrations, which have been banned since 1913, when Sen. Ben Tillman (S.C.) inserted an editorial cartoon of a cow stretched across the continental United States — symbolizing Wall Street’s exploitation of American farmers — into the Record. (The move was lambasted by several contemporaneous Senators who said it threatened to render the Record “a very grotesque publication.”)

Nor will anything shouted from the galleries make it into the Record.

On a March day this year when the chamber was largely deserted, Senate Reporter Rebecca Eyster was on the floor with Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), who was speaking on the bankruptcy bill.

Suddenly, a woman leapt up in the gallery and started loudly expressing her opposition to both the Iraq war and the bankruptcy bill. “That’s why these people are going to go bankrupt because they are over there in this war and they come back and they can’t pay” their bills, Eyster paraphrases the woman as saying.

Despite the hubbub, however, the only thing that showed up in the Record the following day was the standard phrase: “Disturbance in the Visitors’ Galleries.”