Schedule Takes a Toll On House Reporters

Posted April 11, 2007 at 6:25pm

Since Congress returned to an (occasional) five-day workweek in January, it is pretty safe to assume that most people who work on Capitol Hill have put in some extra hours.

But for those charged with recording and maintaining the official records of Congress, this rings especially true. After all, somebody has got to keep track of what Congress actually is doing with all that added time.

“It affects everything,” said House Clerk Lorraine Miller, whose office is charged with maintaining chamber records and certifying the passage of votes, among other duties. “The longer they work, the longer we work.”

One group that has put in noticeably more hours is the House’s official reporters — those specialized stenographers who take down the official record of floor happenings and committee hearings.

Since the opening of the 110th Congress, most reporters have met the workweek’s 40-hour mark within three days, Miller said. In January alone, her office oversaw a $10,000 increase in overtime pay for the reporters compared to January 2006.

It’s easy to see why.

Take just the committee hearings for example. From Jan. 1 to March 16, 2006, the House held a total of 346 hearings. During the same period this year, there were 521 hearings.

“We’ve been in session more days, and we’re working longer days, and this also translates into overtime for the staff,” Miller said.

Reporters have felt the crunch because their work is so specialized and there are few people qualified to do the job.

Charged with transcribing all House proceedings for the Congressional Record, reporters provide stenographic support to committees for hearings, meetings and markups, in addition to providing floor coverage. At any given time, there are about seven or eight permanent reporters working for the House, Miller said.

And while one additional reporter was hired recently, finding the talent to take on the extra work isn’t easy, whether it’s finding a full-timer or a freelance stenographer, Miller said.

“This is a very specialized profession, because we demand such high accuracy in their reporting,” Miller said. “They’re tested. It’s an elaborate process they go through to become an official reporter. It’s much more rigorous than people would imagine. It has to be.”

While the Clerk’s office requested $742,000 in fiscal 2008 for freelance stenographers, even if suitable people can be found, they can’t always report on a hearing. Oftentimes, the House reporters must be experts in the fields they cover.

Those reporters who do stenography work for the Rules Committee need to know the complex rules of the House, for example. Others must gain security clearances to cover hearings that deal with classified information.

But it isn’t always so hectic.

“You have to realize, too, that we’re working crunches,” Miller said. “We are on the recess now. … It balances out, and everyday is not as big a crunch day.”

Others in the Clerk’s office also are putting in additional hours. With Congress in session more, there are more floor votes, which means the Clerk and her staff must hit the floor to make sure everything goes smoothly: All the votes are recorded, everybody gets their chance to vote and everything turns out accurate.

“You come back and you say, ‘Phew, got through another one,’” Miller said.

The additional workload hasn’t stopped at the Capitol, either. A few blocks away, the Government Printing Office staff also is putting in time to make sure Congressional records reach the halls of Congress in a timely matter.

From the time a bill is introduced to when it becomes a law, it heads to the GPO at least 10 times, from printing the original bill to printing copies of added amendments, to the bill in its final language. Plus, the agency is charged with printing the Congressional Record each night.

From Jan. 4 to April 10, the GPO published 57 issues of the Record, according to Bob Tapella, the agency’s chief of staff. During the same period in 2006, the GPO published 39 issues — that’s a 46 percent increase in 2007.

But the GPO is well-prepared, Tapella added.

“Congress sends us material at the end of the business day, and we are staffed 24/7, so the fact they are working more hours during the day really doesn’t effect us,” Tapella said.

But while employees aren’t working overtime, they are having to do more work during their shifts, he added.

And that’s something the GPO predicted. At the start of a new Congress, the GPO’s workload tends to increase because there is more work to do, from the printing of the Record to printing stationery for the new committees.

“We have somewhat a cyclical business,” Tapella said. “We can go back, at least in recent history, and we are pretty much on the dime in terms of identifying the cycles of the legislative process.”

Costs this session have increased for the GPO, however. The agency requested $101 million for fiscal 2008 to meet increased Congressional printing and binding requirements, a jump from $87.9 million, the current level of funding.

While the work has increased, Miller predicted things will continue to run smoothly, as those involved are dedicated to their duties.

Plus, they are likely to continue to get that extra overtime.

“People would be surprised to see how dedicated those folks are to the House,” Miller said. “They stay enormous hours to make sure things are done correctly, because it reflects on our Members, too.”