Navigating Congress


On the Hill
As with all reporting, the key is finding the right people and convincing them to talk to you. Going to committee hearings is a given if you’re on the national security beat in Washington, but good reporters are doing more than taking notes on the testimony and chasing down the members for a quote; they’re looking around and talking to the other stakeholders in the room, like lobbyists and industry officials who have tips about what’s happening behind the scenes.

“Being around, present in those [hearing] rooms, you get to know all the people in the rooms, and you get to know every person who comes to one of those meetings is important somehow,” said Politico’s Jen DiMascio.

DiMascio also recommended getting to know the senior aides on the committees, many of whom have been there longer than the members and know the issues intimately. They carry a lot of clout with new members in particular, she said.

Tom Bowman, who is a Pentagon correspondent for NPR and has been covering defense since 1997, said Hill staffers have the testimonies of witnesses before hearings, which can offer a good opportunity for a preview story.

Sources off the Hill

Universities with departments related to national security — Georgetown University and Johns Hopkins University, for instance — are a font of knowledge. The Hill’s John T. Bennett said he goes to business management schools for stories about acquisitions, for instance.

Analysts are also good sources, especially because many are former Hill or Defense Department staffers, he said.

But NPR’s Bowman warned you have to be selective about choosing both a think tank and an expert. Many think tanks are partisan, offering slanted perspectives. Further, ask whether an expert has been traveling, Bowman said, or you may find yourself with a commentator who gets all of his or her information from the media rather than personal experience and observation. It also helps if the expert has a military background, he said.

Try these respected think tanks first — and don’t forget to check out events, which can feature great sources who are likely much easier to track down at an event than they are on the Hill: