In a move some see as a threat to the ability of the media to operate independently within the Capitol, the Senate Sergeant-at-Arms office is increasingly asserting its authority in decisions that previously were left largely to journalists elected to oversee the chamber’s press galleries.
The changes, many of them subtle, began several years ago and have remained relatively consistent through Democratic and Republican majorities. The primary impetus has been the implications of the 1995 Congressional Accountability Act.
In his capacity as Rules and Administration chairman, Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) wrote a letter to then-Sergeant-at-Arms Greg Casey in 1998 informing him that, notwithstanding the roles of the executive committees of correspondents for each of the four galleries (radio and television, periodical press, daily press and photographers), the Sergeant-at-Arms office was not exempt from liability under employment laws, which the CAA made applicable to Congress for the first time.
While acknowledging that the situation “has been in dispute,” current Rules Chairman Trent Lott (R-Miss.) maintained that the Sergeant-at-Arms, a patronage position of the majority party, holds sway over the galleries. “It is under the jurisdiction of the Sergeant-at-Arms. I think it should be run by the Sergeant-at-Arms and not the press.”
“Our position is this: The employees in the gallery work for the Sergeant-at-Arms,” said current Sergeant-at-Arms Bill Pickle. “It doesn’t mean we don’t have a close relationship with the committees. I think it was always clear to the Sergeant-at-Arms, but I don’t think it was clear in the minds of the [executive] committees. As a way of getting along with the press and making things work, I think it just evolved that they were always informally involved in the process.”
But in early Congresses, the situation was largely reversed. From the 1880s until relatively recently, the executive committees essentially ran the galleries with a nod from the Rules Committee.
Over time those responsibilities came to include negotiating with the Architect of the Capitol and the relevant committees for material improvement of the press facilities and selecting press gallery superintendents and their assistants, according to a 1961 Journalism Quarterly article supplied by the Sergeant-at-Arms office. (Once nominated by the correspondents’ committee the gallery employees were paid from Senate funds, as they are today.)
A half-dozen reporters and gallery employees from both chambers were interviewed for this article. Due to the sensitivity of the subject and the relatively small number of individuals close to the decision-making process, all spoke on the condition of anonymity.
“For many decades, Congress didn’t want to be in that business,” said one reporter. “The whole purpose of the galleries and to have the executive committees was to separate the running of the press galleries from politics.
“It was pretty much unquestioned for a long, long period of time. The Sergeant-at-Arms has made a more forceful assertion of authority in recent years. There has always been a little tension there. It’s one of those things that is never completely settled.”
The reporter conceded, however, that since gallery employees are paid and given benefits by the Senate through the Sergeant-at-Arms, “there are probably things that confers on the Sergeant-at-Arms.”
But until the CAA made the Sergeant-at-Arms liable for employment decisions for gallery employees, whatever authority that conferred went largely unwielded.
In 2001, then-Senate Radio and TV Gallery employee Gloria Halcomb, who is black, sued the Sergeant-at-Arms for denying her opportunities to advance professionally based on race and gender. She was terminated two years later for alleged poor performance and insubordination by gallery chief Larry Janezich, and Halcomb subsequently added retaliation to her list of complaints in the suit. Her case is now pending in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
“Any time you have problems, it makes people question existing arrangements,” the reporter said.
Halcomb’s suit seems to have put the Sergeant-at-Arms on notice about the potential dichotomy in the galleries: While the Sergeant-at-Arms was responsible for violations of the CAA, the office didn’t have undisputed control over employment decisions.
“When I first got here, I was shocked to find out that many in the press viewed them as employees of the press,” Pickle said of gallery employees. “I went to the Rules Committee and said, ‘Clarify this.’ So Senate Rules issued a letter saying this is a policy. Whether these lawsuits will force us to stake that position more clearly, I don’t know.”
Tension between the Sergeant-at-Arms and the executive committee surfaced after Halcomb was let go. Pickle said he and then-Radio and Television Gallery Executive Committee Chairman Joe Johns exchanged letters about the relative authority of the committee vis-à-vis the Sergeant-at-Arms. Halcomb then sent a letter to Johns and threatened to sue the executive committee for her termination.
“When she was fired, some people in the press thought they should be consulted,” Pickle said.
Johns, through a spokesman for CNN, his current employer, declined to comment. Several attempts to reach Halcomb at her home and through her attorney were unsuccessful.
In the midst of Halcomb’s saga, the director of the Senate Daily Press Gallery, Bob Petersen, allegedly forged some of his own performance reviews in order to obtain pay increases. Ultimately, according to sources, a deputy Sergeant-at-Arms told him he had to go, although members of the executive committee were involved. Joe Keenan was eventually chosen by the executive committee and the Sergeant-at-Arms office to replace Petersen, the sources said, but not before a fight ensued between the two over who had the final say.
The situation on the House side is almost entirely different. House rules give the executive committees authority to “supervise” the galleries, “including the designation of its employees, subject to the direction and control of the Speaker.”
But even though Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) has the final say, in practice his office rarely exerts it.
“It’s different on the House side. We do have the power here to make recommendations, not only on the director, but also [other] people who are hired. We have input, however, the key words are ‘subject to the Speaker.’ The Speaker has the final say,” said a source familiar with the situation. “[But] the way things work over here: Things are on a fairly friendly basis. There’s nobody trying to play power.”
Reporters and gallery employees alike nervously acknowledged that the situation in the House could erode at any time, noting that a wrongful termination suit could spark a response similar to the one in the Senate.
But given the cultural chasm between the House and the Senate on these and similar internal issues, that seems unlikely.
“I think it’s the mentality of the current House leadership. Denny Hastert and [Minority Leader] Nancy Pelosi [D-Calif.] don’t see us as a threat. I am not saying Senators or even staff see us as a threat. There just seems to be a different view,” the source said. “On the House side, in all our galleries, it’s a different animal.”
The differences in approach have even translated into discrepancies in access.
“I hear anecdotally, and I have heard this for several years, that the Senate has been stricter on access than the House,” the source said. “The problem comes up in TV.”
Access is what most worries reporters and gallery employees. Speaking strictly hypothetically, several mentioned the possibility that the Senate could determine that it didn’t want reporters queuing up outside the chamber on the second floor, the most likely place to catch Senators as they enter and leave the floor. If the gallery employees work for the Sergeant-at-Arms, and he told them to tell the reporters they could no longer stand there for security reasons, the gallery employees could then lose their jobs if they spoke up for the media.
“They are our employees, and they would have to tell the reporters that,” Pickle said.
He acknowledged that the relationship between the Senate and the media galleries is an awkward one, at best. “It’s kind of a screwy deal. They have always been given office space because it’s beneficial for the Senate.”
Precisely for that reason, many interviewed dismissed the possibility that access would ever be significantly curtailed, regardless of who runs the galleries.
Calling the relationship “symbiotic,” the source asserted: “In the current climate, I don’t think they would get too far with that stuff.”
Another individual close to the process agreed, saying, “There is sort of a dance that goes on about this.”
One area of the executive committee’s authority that has remained untouched, however, is the credentialing process. Among the committee’s original purposes was to determine which organizations would be granted credentialed access to the Capitol, and they remain the sole authority for each gallery on that point. Although a news organization that has been denied a press badge, which essentially grants the bearer the same privileges in the Capitol as staffers, can appeal to the Rules Committee, the long-standing practice of that panel upholding decisions made by the committee (so long as they are consistent with previous decisions) remains.
“They are smart enough to leave that alone,” said a source.
“It seems like in every other issue outside of that, the Sergeant-at-Arms wants to have absolute control. The galleries are supposed to be insulated from partisan appointed patronage employees. If the Sergeant-at-Arms had their way, [the galleries] would report to the Sergeant-at-Arms, who is a patron of the majority, and less answerable to the reporters. It could have a detrimental effect ultimately. They could cut the committees out of everything.”