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Reporters of Debate and the Congressional Record

Joseph Gales by George Peter Alexander Healy

While the Constitution mandates that "Each House shall keep a Journal of its proceedings," no clause requires the verbatim recording of House and Senate debates. Still, members of Congress and their staffs expect an accurate, comprehensive, and unbiased account of all floor activities. For over one hundred years, they have turned to the Congressional Record for this account. Prior to 1873, multiple sources recorded (or failed to record) the words of senators and representatives. In 1848, the Record's immediate predecessor, the Congressional Globe, became the first publication to attempt measure-by-measure coverage, while previous legislative chronicles—private political newspapers—did not record all or even most of the debates. In fact, the newspaper editors asserted their right to omit material they found "eternally repetitious" or of little interest to their readers, and the articles they did print were sometimes colored by their highly partisan views.

Like the Continental Congress, the early Senate closed its doors to the public and to the press, while the House of Representatives never restricted visitors from viewing its proceedings. Consequently, newspapers immediately began to cover the House debates. In Philadelphia, these papers included the Gazette of the United States, the Aurora, and a number of publications by the prickly Federalist, "Peter Porcupine." The press was shut out of the upper house, however, leaving the Senate Journal and rare resources such as Maclay's Diary to record the first six years of Senate history.

Backed by the state legislatures, reporters and their editors lobbied to open Senate debates to the public and press. They gained admittance in 1794, and received gallery space the following year. Once inside the chamber, however, reporters had little patience for the Senate's careful deliberations. Instead, they preferred the livelier, more combative House, and only occasionally covered the Senate. While senators worked in obscurity, House members complained of being misrepresented in the press. Reporters had trouble hearing and identifying speakers, and were known to "twist" words in order to please their editors. Yet representatives voted against resolutions to appoint an official stenographer. James Madison, then a House member, argued that if such a measure passed, his colleagues would be forever correcting their remarks. Newspapers, on the other hand, printed floor statements relatively quickly and at no cost to Congress.

When Congress moved to Washington in 1800, the National Intelligencer quickly dominated the new city's fledgling political press. The tri-weekly newspaper covered both the House and the Senate debates, while espousing the Jeffersonian ideals of its editor, Samuel Harrison Smith. In 1810, Smith's assistant, Joseph Gales, Jr. (pictured), took over the publication, and two years later, Gales made William Winston Seaton his partner. Unlike other newspapermen, Gales and Seaton allowed members to edit their remarks before printing them in the Intelligencer. The two reporters became fixtures in the House and Senate chambers; Gales sat next to the president of the Senate, while Seaton covered the House from his place at the speaker's side.

In 1824, Gales and Seaton established the Register of Debates. This publication provided an abstract of most House and Senate floor statements, separate from the reporters' newspaper. Meanwhile, the Intelligencer had moved away from its Jeffersonian roots, and now promoted industrial capitalism and other Whig party philosophies. Not surprisingly, when Andrew Jackson's Democrats came to power in Congress, Gales and Seaton's popularity declined. Although they continued to publish the Register for another eight years, Gales and Seaton never again dominated legislative reporting. Instead, they began work on the Annals of Congress, a forty-two volume set of pre-Register debates, reconstructed from newspapers, journals, and stenographic reports.

Supported by President Jackson, the new printing partnership of Francis Preston Blair and John Cook Rives founded the Congressional Globe in 1833. Whigs distrusted the Globe's version of House and Senate proceedings, and called Blair and Rives "habitual falsifiers of debate." The partners were met with such hostility that they allegedly carried concealed weapons in order to protect themselves against angry members of Congress.

In 1846, the Senate authorized its members to subscribe to the political newspaper of their choice, and the Globe, by its popularity, became the institution's semiofficial publication. Two years later, the Senate contracted with newspapers to provide coverage to the Globe, an arrangement emulated by the House in 1850. As a nonpartisan publication, the Globe utilized a corps of reporters trained in the latest stenographic techniques, and began printing debates as first-person narratives rather than third-person summations.

The enormous number of Civil War era debates forced Congress to consider a more efficient system of reporting. Consequently, members chose not to renew the Congressional Globe's contract when it expired on March 3, 1873. Instead, they established a new publication, one printed by the Government Printing Office and staffed by Official Reporters of Debates, employed directly by Congress. Although the Congressional Record retained the Globe's layout, reporters, and audience, its goal to provide a nonpartisan, substantially verbatim account of all Congressional debates marked a significant departure from the concerns of private editors.

Now considered the House and Senate's most important document, the Congressional Record is distributed to more than 4,400 subscribers in legislative offices, government agencies, and depository libraries. It is divided into four sections: Proceedings of the Senate, Proceedings of the House, Extensions of Remarks, and the Daily Digest. House and Senate Proceedings include the floor speeches, transcribed and edited by the Official Reporters of Debate. Other members' statements are inserted into the Extensions of Remarks section, which replaced the Appendix in 1968. The Daily Digest was added to the Record in 1947, and serves as a guide to recent and upcoming legislative activity. While the early newspaper editors maintained their right to omit material they did not believe "deserved particular notice," the Record has become exactly what the editors resisted becoming—thoroughly comprehensive. As Senate majority leader, Lyndon Johnson, stated in 1956, "Locked in its pages are the debate, the resolutions, the bills, the memorials, the petitions, and the legislative actions that are the reason for the existence of the Senate [and the House]."

Today, the Congressional Record is available on the internet as well as being printed daily. Early congressional documents, including the Annals of Congress and the Journal of the House and Senate, are included in the Library of Congress' A Century of Lawmaking online project.

Further Reading:

Robert C. Byrd, "Reporters of Debate and the Congressional Record," The Senate, 1789-1989 (Washington, DC: GPO, 1991, pp. 311-326.

Donald A. Ritchie, Press Gallery: Congress and the Washington Correspondents (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991).