By: Ginger Gibson
March 9, 2013 07:21 AM EST
There’s a new bipartisan group in the Senate. Call it the Talk To My Press Secretary Caucus.
For a growing group of Republicans and Democrats — some of them veterans, others newer to Washington — questions are not welcome from the national press who patrol the hallways of the Capitol. Answering is just not worth it.
That is — not worth the headaches and headlines, even for something as small as a blog post, of a fumbled quote or inartfully turned phrase. Not worth, several lawmakers and their press aides suggested, a possible “gotcha moment.”
These senators’ silence extends to even pet issues — like Obamacare for Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) or banking policy for Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). When confronted with a national reporter in the Capitol hallways, these normally voluble senators suddenly clam up.
The silent treatment is a stark departure from past practices when reporters and senators enjoyed more personal relationships and extended conversations. But it may be the safer bet for these high-profile newsmakers at a time when the news cycle is lightning swift and almost anything a public official says can end up on Twitter or drive a cable-news cycle. And not in a good way.
Among the silent senators are Republicans Cruz and David Vitter (La.) and Democrats Warren, Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.), Tammy Baldwin (Wis.), Mazie Hirono (Hawaii), and Al Franken (Minn.).
Part of this strategy has to do with a new climate on the Hill. In the last decade the number of Hill reporters has only increased, fueled by the growing number of blogs and websites, even as many newspapers have shuttered or down-sized their Washington bureaus.
As senators travel between their offices and the Senate chamber, a large pack of eager reporters wait in the underground subway system and hallways with recorders and notebooks resembling something akin to the running of the bulls. It’s a time-honored tradition. There are no cameras or lights in most areas. It’s just old-fashioned print reporters.
Congress still remains the most accessible of all of the government branches. Nowhere else in Washington can a reporter walk up to so many decision-makers and demand an answer on pretty much any subject.
Most members stop and oblige the questions. But for a group of lawmakers, they bolt. And many reporters give up on ever asking them a question.
“I hired a communication director for a reason,” Baldwin said, only after trying to evade a reporter twice by talking to a staffer and just before hopping on a subway car to whisk her away from the crowd of media. “It’s just like in signing on to bills, I have legislative staff because I expect them to advise me.”
Every senator has their own escape technique. Baldwin often talks to a staffer, frequently turning herself to avoid eye contact with a lurking reporter.
Warren literally runs, sometimes as her staff tries in vain to keep up while she beats a quick path from the subway car to the safe haven of an elevator — where reporters need permission to ride with a member.
There are ways to evade the reporters entirely. For days, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) took back stairways and drove between his office and the Capitol to avoid reporters after controversy surrounding him and a donor reached fever pitch.
On the House side, reporters can request time to chat with representatives in the Speaker’s Lobby off the House floor — the lawmaker can choose to engage or not. In the Senate, there’s no such equivalent. And with 435 members, a House member who refuses to talk gets lost in the crowd.
“If you have nothing to say, don’t say anything,” said Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), a former House member. “Just because you have a microphone doesn’t mean you should speak.”
Not all members of the silent caucus have stayed mum forever.
Vitter frequently talked to reporters before he became embroiled in a scandal involving prostitutes in the summer of 2007. Since then, he has refused to talk to reporters in the hallway, a rule he calmly explains any time he’s approached.
“The drive-by interviews while rushing to a meeting or vote almost never convey a policy discussion meaningfully,” said spokesman Luke Bolar when asked about the policy. “The competition to get something out first shouldn’t replace getting it right. One could argue that the very nature of this style of interview directly contributes to the lack of substantive dialogue that is an epidemic in Washington.”
Said Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), who does frequently stop and take questions: “Running from one place to another there is clearly a risk because [there is no] context in a hurried situation, and that’s why often I will say to a reporter, come on by the office because you are asking a question that on its surface may mean something. My answer may mean something to you that I don’t intend it to.”
When tea-party star Cruz arrived in Washington, he did tackle questions in the hallways. But more recently, he seems to be deflecting questions to his office.
Cruz’s staff contends he hasn’t completely stopped talking to reporters.
“He’s often just in a hurry to get to his next scheduled event,” spokeswoman Catherine Frazier said. “The session has picked up steam, there are an increasing number of commitments the senator has to keep and it limits his opportunities to stop and have conversations in the hallway.”
Despite his penchant for the media attention, New York Democrat Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) is well known for pulling a flip phone out of his pocket and pretending to hold a conversation.
“I try to teach my colleagues this excellent technique,” he said as he quickly tried to hop into an elevator. “I say, ‘You want to avoid these pesky reporters, talk on your cellphone.’”
When he can’t grab his phone, Schumer will often turn to the closest senator – Democrat or Republican – and start a conversation. It’s considered a violation of protocol to interrupt two members while they’re talking.
“There is a time and place for everything,” said Schumer, who is known to warn freshmen about talking to reporters, sometimes specific ones, in the hallways.
Sometimes senators can avoid the pack of reporters because they’re not involved in high-profile issues. But on a close vote, each one’s thoughts on a bill or nomination become relevant.
“You would all rather talk to someone else,” Heitkamp said when asked why she doesn’t talk to reporters. “I’m just the only person you saw, that’s why.”
Exiting votes last month, she moved closer to Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.), who was getting a particularly large amount of attention at the time for his position on guns.
“I’m going to walk with someone famous so they don’t bother me,” Heitkamp told him within earshot of several reporters.
But for Heitkamp, her reticence is also about feeling comfortable giving answers on the fly.
“Really, sometimes when you’re in a hurry and you’re focused on something else, it’s hard and stop and articulate the right answer,” she said.
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said that technology was actually a boon to news-makers who want to make sure they’re accurately quoted.
“I will have to say that thus far, I cannot remember being misquoted. Thankfully, most of ya’ll use microphones these days,” he said pointing to a tape-recorder. “I think there was maybe a time or two when something was out of context, but so far it hasn’t been a problem for what it’s worth.”
Part of the nervousness about talking to the press can come from knowing closed-door meetings are supposed to remain confidential, said Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.).
“It’s like they what they say about Las Vegas, what happens in Vegas stays there and the same is supposed to be true of our caucuses. Otherwise people won’t feel free to say what’s on their hearts and minds,” he said.
Carper added: “I’ll always spill my guts though.”
Senior senators warn their silent colleagues are missing out on some advantages like communicating with constituents and hammering home important issues.
“A lot of times I’ve been angered by reporting and all of that, but after all these years I’ve found it’s better to talk with the media,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who acknowledged fellow members grumble about being taken out of context.
A prolific presence on cable networks, McCain is almost always a lock for a quote and will stop and talk to almost anyone who approaches him in the hallway, often holding court with a crowd of reporters.
But he’s also known for being quick to counter those who cross him, and he’ll hold a grudge for years.
“And if it’s a little jerk like you that misquotes me then I’ll be glad to call you and yell at you and tell you what a disgrace you are to your profession,” McCain said with laugh, but only half joking.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) is also friendly with the fourth estate, often causing a traffic jam as reporters crowd him. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) rarely attends a press conference that doesn’t result in him being engulfed by a gang of reporters in the hallway afterward.
Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), who has served more than 30 years in the Senate, will stand in the halls to take questions at length.
“It’s natural for me to do so,” said Levin as a reporter trailed him to his office. “It’s not a decision, it’s just natural to do so. I don’t know if it’s an advantage to be civil and responsive and communicative.”
There are those who are happy to take questions, but only if the reporters keep moving while they head to a meeting or a vote.
“I didn’t know I had a choice,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) laughed as a reporter ran behind him up the stairs toward the elevators that carry members to the Senate floor. “No one told me any different.”