Time to let citizens cover Congress


The Hill newspaper began a series of Op-Eds today from authors of the Open House Project, a Sunlight sponsored endeavor to make the House of Representatives more open to citizens online and in general. Today’s piece comes from the Heritage Foundation’s Rob Bluey advocating for citizen journalist access to the press gallery in the Capitol. With the expansion of online citizen-generated media over the past few years it sometimes overlooked by those who consume this media how the obstacles created by old media that impedes citizens from observing and reporting on their own government.

Bluey notes, “House and Senate press galleries take their marching orders from mainstream journalists, who have little incentive to invite enterprising bloggers to their coveted stomping grounds.” Mainstream journalists are not willing to give up benefits conferred by their status as establishment journalists, thus bloggers and citizen journalists are often left with no way to cover Congress. If you can’t secure the press credentials, you can’t cover Congress. Matt Stoller at MyDD gives an excellent example of what he has had to deal with:

Yesterday I went to the Senate-side of the Capitol building, and I was stopped by a security guard who asked me where I was going, who I was going to see, and who invited me. He didn't answer my questions about the Capitol until I had satisfactorily allayed his suspicions. I adopted a disarming tone, and he let me through with a grudging wave to the metal detectors. And then when I went inside I had the same experience with someone at a desk who looked at me with deep suspicion before looking up my name and letting me through. This isn't to say that we live in an authoritarian state or anything, only that this is supposed to be the people's legislature, and surrounding it are huge blocks of concrete, armed guards, and an attitude of castle-like fortitude.

Our legislative chambers should be friendly places for citizens to go to retrieve information. Many members of Congress get this, on both sides of the aisle, and it's kind of a downhill battle to move us to a fully open Congress. We'll get there eventually, since the political case is too compelling.

The effect of treating citizens who want to cover their Congress with suspicion is to deter them from engaging in politics in one of the fulfilling ways: by observing and writing about Congress in the same manner that establishment journalists do. Rob Bluey has a very fair proposal to allow citizens to engage at this level of political activity and to make the House as open as it ought to be:

A much-overdue solution would be to create an Online Media Gallery to oversee the credentialing process. This gallery would serve as a sister organization to existing congressional press galleries, adapting the rules of those galleries for individuals who operate exclusively on the Internet. The formation of the gallery would allow a committee of peers to establish new rules applicable for websites.

This doesn’t mean Congress should throw open its doors to just anyone, which would undoubtedly draw security concerns and create space issues. However, with its own rules for membership, the Online Media Gallery would allow citizen journalists who cover Congress to at least have a fair shot at securing credentials.

In addition, the new Online Media Gallery would alleviate the problem that exists with access to lawmakers. Currently, bloggers seeking to gain access to events in the U.S. Capitol must secure approval from a congressional office, letting staffers control the credentialing process and creating the potential to discriminate against certain bloggers whom members would like to exclude.

The era of online media and citizen engagement requires these kinds of changes. In the short term Congress may feel that they can avoid opening the doors to a new group of engaged citizens, but in the long term these changes are inevitable. The online community of engaged citizens and bloggers will only continue to grow and gain in importance to each individual lawmaker. Which Member of Congress wants a local blogger coming to report on their legislative activities to get hassled every step of the way because of a system created by the establishment press to restrict access to an elite few? That doesn’t sound like an experience that any Member would want to happen to a constituent, let alone any citizen from another district.

Members of Congress and the Periodical Press Gallery should adopt Bluey’s solution. It’s high time that Congress open all of its doors to the public. Matt Stoller sums it up nicely when he says, “I want to be able to get the same access the press gets to cover Congress and its various hearings, and I don't think the AP should get to say whether I qualify or not.” Keep your eyes peeled for more from The Hill on the Open House Project's recommendations.