Senate Republicans on Tuesday shocked the Capitol with an apparent crackdown on media access that immediately drew criticism from reporters and lawmakers.
Reporters were told they would no longer be allowed to film or record audio of interviews in the Senate side hallways of the Capitol without special permission.
Television reporters will need permission from senators, the Senate Rules Committee, the Senate Sergeant at Arms or the Senate Radio and TV Gallery, depending on location, before conducting an on-camera interview with a senator anywhere in the Capitol or in the Senate office buildings, according to a Senate official familiar with the matter.
The new restrictions, issued by the Senate Rules Committee, would break years of precedent, which previously set that “videotaping and audio recording are permitted in the public areas of the House and Senate office buildings,” according to the Radio and TV Gallery website.
A Senate Democratic aide said the decision to substantially curtail the access of television reporters was made unilaterally by Senate Rules Committee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.).
In a statment released shortly after the uproar began, however, Shelby said “no additional restrictions have been put in place by the Rules Committee,” adding that Rules “has been working with the various galleries to ensure compliance with existing rules.”
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), the ranking Democrat on the committee, initially told reporters she was not consulted in the decision. A short time later she said she had spoken to Shelby.
“He said he would never move forward on some major change without consulting with me. He said it was an inquiry and that we would talk about it. So he seemed to imply that they weren’t going to change the policy.”
“He just said it was a staff inquiry,” she said in response to questions, adding that what happened earlier in the day was an “arbitrary enforcement of a rule that is against common practice”
She also released a statement that said, “As ranking member of the Senate Rules Committee I call on the majority to allow reporting in the Capitol to proceed as usual.”
The crowds of reporters in the Capitol hallways have hit record sizes. Last month, the Senate Sergeant-at-Arms sent a note to media outlets warning about overcrowding as reporters try to pin down lawmakers for interviews in hallways and around the Senate subway system.
Since the beginning of the year, media outlets such as CNN, NBC and Fox News have regularly staked out senators outside of their offices and hearing rooms to ask questions about healthcare reform and the investigations into collusion between the Trump administration and Russia.
Senate officials on Tuesday appeared to also announced new restrictions on the movements of all reporters, including print journalists, in the basement of the Capitol, where it is easiest to catch up with lawmakers before and after votes and lunch meetings.
The announcement caught reporters and the heads of the Senate daily, periodical and radio and television galleries by surprise Tuesday and sparked angry backlash from the media.
“Senate Rules Committee and @SenateSAA trying to SHUT DOWN press access in halls. No more staking out hearings without permission. Not OK,” Manu Raju, CNN’s senior congressional reporter, tweeted, using an abbreviation for the Senate Sergeant-at-Arms.
The press gallery directors, who represent the interests and concerns of the media to Senate administrative officials, held an emergency meeting with the Senate Rules Committee Tuesday to discuss the new restrictions on press access.
The move comes as Senate Republicans are facing criticism for not holding public hearings or markup sessions on their ObamaCare repeal legislation, which is expected to come up for a vote by the end of the month.
Several senators from both parties criticized the move.
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) tweeted: “Maybe not the right moment to lower the secrecy veil on Congress. To whoever is trying to protect Senators – we can fend for ourselves.”
“I want you to have access to us, inform your readers, inform your viewers what we’re trying to do,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), one of the most media-friendly senators, told reporters in the Senate subway. But “of all the problems in America, y’all are pretty down on the chain.”
Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) retweeted an NBC News reporter’s tweet, adding: “This is a bad idea.”
The Democratic National Committee accused Republicans of trying to muzzle the press in order to shield their legislative efforts from scrutiny, particularly on legislation to repeal and replace ObamaCare. Republicans are not holding a hearing on that legislation, which is largely being written behind closed doors.
“Republican senators want so badly to hide their healthcare repeal that they’re barring the filming of interviews in their hallways,” DNC deputy communications Adrienne Watson said in a statement. “This is a pathetic and disturbing attempt to silence the press as Trump and Republicans prepare to take away healthcare from millions and millions of people to give millionaires and billionaires another massive tax break.”
Reporters on Capitol Hill reacted to the announced restrictions with a mix of shock and anger.
“ALERT: Reporters at Capitol have been told they are not allow to film interviews with senators in hallways, contrary to years of precedent,” Kasie Hunt, NBC’s Capitol correspondent, wrote on Twitter.
Benji Sarlin, another reporter for NBC News, noted on Twitter the press crackdown comes amidst efforts to craft major healthcare legislation behind closed doors.
“Can’t help but notice this comes as Congress is crafting major legislation behind closed doors without the usual public process there either,” he wrote.
Have these people read the Constitution? https://t.co/ojpVPeY5hn
Jordain Carney contributed.