The office of Speaker Kevin McCarthy has taken initial steps to form a working group to explore potential changes to media credentialing at the Capitol, a rare lawmaker intervention into a process long overseen by journalists.
Two sources familiar with the effort confirmed the speaker’s office had contacted press galleries about forming a group. Details about who would be on the group and the scope of the review, as well as the reason for starting the group, are still unclear.
Ryan Nobles of NBC, the vice chair of the executive committee of the Radio Television Correspondents Association, said the association “is aware of a request by the Speaker’s Office to conduct a meeting with the Directors of the Galleries and our leaders.”
“The parameters of the meeting have not yet been made clear, but our organization is always prepared to meet with our Congressional partners to discuss opportunities for increased press access,” Nobles said in an email.
Members of the media, elected to committees by their peers, currently oversee the process of who gets media credentials and enforcement of the rules about news gathering in the Capitol Building.
Changes to that process sparked by lawmakers could call into question the independence of the process for Capitol Hill press credentials, which are also used around Washington to identify media at courthouses and government buildings and even for coverage of the political conventions.
The credentialing process has sparked some controversy over the years, particularly when organizations have been denied or when lawmakers have sought changes about access to members of Congress and their staffs.
In 2017, rumors swirled that the Senate sergeant-at-arms and Senate Rules Committee possibly were restricting media access to members of Congress and staff around the Capitol complex.
The committee chairman at that time, former Alabama Sen. Richard C. Shelby, said wires got crossed at a discussion of existing rules between panel staff and sergeant-at-arms staff “because a lot of people have complained, not to me, [that] the press gets in their way.”
Katherine Tully-McManus, a POLITICO reporter and chair of the executive committee of the Periodical Correspondents Association, said Tuesday that she has not been contacted by the speaker’s office regarding the working group.
A survey was sent to members of the press by the Senate Press Gallery last week asking for feedback on a variety of services, including whether the annual credentialing renewal process is managed effectively. Tully-McManus said her board signed off on the survey being sent to the press.
“Our board approved the Senate sergeant-at-arms to send out the survey. They needed our approval to contact the entire press gallery membership, and we granted that,” said Tully-McManus, who previously worked at CQ Roll Call. “It is my understanding that other parts of the Senate sergeant-at-arms [office] are doing surveys on other parts of their operations.”
The rules of both the House and Senate would need to be amended to change gallery procedures, including the media credentialing process, said Ed Pesce, who worked in the Senate Periodical Press Gallery for more than two decades and retired as director in 2016 (he later went on to work for CQ Roll Call).
Pesce said there have been times when the chief administrative officer, under authority of the House speaker, or the Senate sergeant-at-arms, under the authority of the Senate Rules and Administration Committee, homed in on the operation of the galleries, both to restrict and expand journalistic access to the building and to lawmakers.
Questions about how the galleries credential correspondents were not uncommon, although the involvement of Senate Rules and the speaker evolved over time.
“I started working there in 1990, and the way that former directors at the time would talk about it was unless there was a real problem, they used to be hands off,” Pesce said. “I think over time, as certain issues have arisen, they’ve gotten a little more involved in the operations.”
Gallery staff serve as a resource both to lawmakers and to journalists — what Pesce called a “mutually beneficial arrangement.” They advocate on behalf of reporters while also weighing the security and protection of members of Congress, Pesce said.
“I think the press galleries function as a big part of the freedoms of the press established under the Constitution, that they are a good-faith effort on Congress’ part to facilitate the coverage that reporters need,” Pesce said. “It’s not a perfect system, but it’s worked for quite a long time. And there have been times where things have been tense and felt more hostile, and there have been times when things felt more friendly.”
Lawmakers have at times raised concerns about which outlets get credentials. Denials for credentials usually turn on whether there is sufficient separation between an organization’s newsgathering operation and the interests of its ownership.
Flare-ups usually happen outside of public view, but the process at times has spilled into public view. In 2017, the congressional press organizations stripped the credentials of RT, the Russian state-funded news organization formerly known as Russia Times.
That and other issues have particularly swirled around separation between foreign interests and news-gathering operations.
The House Administration Committee is set to mark up a bill on Thursday from one of the more vocal critics, Michigan Republican Rep. Jack Bergman, that cites national security concerns as a reason to change requirements for admission of foreign reporters and correspondents into House news media galleries.
The bill states that “several foreign countries with reported histories of spying on Americans, such as Russia, Qatar, and China, own and control State-sponsored media outlets whose journalists in recent years have been credentialed by the House and Senate Media Galleries.”
CQ Roll Call staffers are involved in the press gallery associations. Niels Lesniewski, a Roll Call senior staff writer, is a member of the Executive Committee of the Periodical Correspondents Association; Jessica Wehrman, editor for health at CQ, is secretary/treasurer of the Standing Committee of the Daily Correspondents Association; and Tom Williams, senior photographer at CQ Roll Call, is a member of the Standing Committee of Press Photographers.