Navigating Congress

By Emmarie Huetteman

In Washington, congressional committees are the gatekeepers of legislation — and a great source of background information.

After bills are introduced, they are assigned to committees for review, where they are considered, marked up — or rewritten to include lawmakers’ changes — and reported out — or given a favorable vote that sends the bill to the full House or Senate. But many bills never see the other side of the committee-room door.

The House and Senate each have three committees that handle legislation related to national security:

  1. Armed Services
  2. Foreign Affairs (House) or Foreign Relations (Senate)
  3. Homeland Security (House) or Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs (Senate).

The differences between the chambers’ committees can be attributed primarily to the differences between the chambers, national security reporters say.   Senators represent states and serve six-year terms, so they generally take a broader, more experienced look at issues.

Jen DiMascio, a Politico staff writer who has covered defense in Washington for four years, said senators are more familiar with the issues than House members because they tend to have been in Congress longer.


On the other hand, House members serve two-year terms and strive to meet the specific needs of their districts. Representatives tend to be more concerned with the factory in their district that makes wheels rather than the entire production line for a fighter jet, for example, said The Hill’s John T. Bennett, who has been on the defense beat in Washington for eight years. And contractors know that, he said.

Representatives on congressional committees work with three different staffs who can serve as resources for national security reporters: in the district office, the Washington office and the committee office. Further, committees have representatives for both the majority and minority parties.

Each office has its own press staff suited to its needs. Committee press offices are, naturally, the best contacts about committee matters. They can direct you to expert advisers on the committee staff who know a lot about what’s going on and may have even been around longer than the representatives themselves.   Committee press offices can also direct you to those on the committee member’s other staffs who can answer specific questions, including legislative aides — advisers to the representative — in Washington and the member’s home district.

Keep in mind that aides at a representative’s district office may be best suited to address how a specific bill could affect your audience.

A Common Challenge

As a young reporter new to the beat, the Hill’s John T. Bennett pictured Washington as a city of leaks. He didn’t anticipate he would run into so many challenges in source-building.

For reporters who have trouble gaining access to committee members or other high-ranking officials, Bennett suggests having a couple of must-ask questions in mind while wandering the Hill, particularly if you’re visiting from out of town; you never know when you may run into someone in the hallway.

Keep in mind that negative attention is still attention. Bennett recommends taking advantage of angry phone calls to talk to sources; they may share something you didn’t know already.

Bowman (NPR)

NPR’s Tom Bowman says reporters from smaller, local media outlets have the advantage of leveraging the hometown angle: Seek the representative from your district, and he or she is much more likely to talk to you in order to appeal directly to constituents.

But when it comes down to it, veteran reporters know trust can be a big part of cultivating sources.   “In a way, it’s like any relationship: It just takes a little time,” Bennett said. “People have to get comfortable with one another.”