Politics

Popcorn, Pinballs, and Piranhas

The surreal spectacle of Capitol Hill reporters pressing senators for useless information.

Reporters wait for Senators to emerge from the office of Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) on Capitol Hill, June 27, 2017
Reporters wait for senators to emerge from the office of Sen. John Cornyn on Capitol Hill on Tuesday in Washington.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The Capitol Hill unit of the country’s fake news operation—50 or so crisply attired journalists with their faces deep in their phones—is loitering outside the ballroom where Republican senators are eating lunch. The spacious anteroom is packed; my colleague who reports frequently from the Senate and House says he’s never seen it so crowded. Behind the enormous doors, GOP leaders debate what is to be done about the Better Care Reconciliation Act, a potentially disastrous piece of legislation that could tear health insurance away from more than 20 million Americans. In the hallway, those of us who’ve been sent to the U.S. Capitol to find the news keep looking at our phones, hoping the news will come to us.

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Hark—the news! Our screens reveal that the health care bill with the 17 percent approval rating has been kicked down the road until after Independence Day. We mill beneath a tremendous mural that’s tightly draped in plastic, like a Dexter victim, and make eyes at the century-old sculpture of Benjamin Franklin. Security types scurry about, herding us away from the staircase. “Make a path, guys,” says a broad-shouldered suit. Several of us drift reluctantly to the right, but only a few inches. “Guys. Guys. I know this is tough,” the man insists. We guys shift one or two more inches, then return to where we were. We watch the crack under the big doors as if a magic light might spill out at any moment and write our pieces for us.

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Like the answer to a prompt on a flashcard, a familiar face materializes a few feet away. It is Elizabeth Warren, who strolls past our press amoeba with an intense expression that calls to mind such phrases as “due process” and “friends, Romans, countrymen.” When nobody detaches to follow her, my colleague explains with a sigh: “She never talks to us.”

A little after 2 p.m., the GOP brass finally finishes eating. (They’ve been at it since 12:30.) The senators now face a logistical challenge: All paths of egress swarm with piranhas who, convention dictates, can attack their prey far more ruthlessly than the more genial schools of notebook-wavers swimming around the White House and the Supreme Court. The anteroom branches into two exit routes: a stairway and a narrow corridor leading to an elevator lobby. We line the walls like villi coating the sides of a digestive tract. Sean Spicer walks by. Nobody moves. “Sean doesn’t know anything,” a colleague snarks.

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The whispers start around 2:15. Murkowski, it’s Murkowski. Sen. Lisa Murkowski shoots out of the ballroom like a pinball. “Senator, senator!” the correspondents entreat in low voices. “Is the delay good or bad for the bill?” “Did the CBO score—?”

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Murkowski doesn’t break stride. She proceeds to the elevator enclosed in a glom of pump-heeled, jacketed humanity, the whole inquisitive organism gliding with her and swishing its extravagant tail of stragglers. Then: Perdue. Perdue! Some of the clump breaks off and doubles back. The journalists on the sidelines pepper their returning colleagues with questions: What’d she say? Did you hear? There’s no time to debrief; Tim Scott, John McCain, and Bob Corker are streaking toward the staircase. It’s like the moment when, after a few trial pops, the microwaved popcorn starts cooking in earnest. The lunchers are dispersing everywhere; Democratic senators are arriving with prepared statements. The piranhas fan out, desperate for some morsel of flesh.

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Power crisscrosses the anteroom in an invisible grid, or like the wire you pull on a bus to get it to stop. There is jocular power, exchanged in handshakes and good-to-see-yas, and the soaring power embedded in the architecture, and the breathless, sidelong power of being in the know. Two aides confer in the corner, their voices hushed and heavy with import. “That depends,” one murmurs, “on the defectors.” He kneads the word like a sore muscle.

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In configuring itself around loci of legislative authority, the fourth estate follows certain rules. Taller, more aggressive journalists seem to gravitate toward higher-profile senators, such as Florida’s Marco Rubio. Smaller and shyer correspondents flit about the room’s edges, picking off lower-wattage congresspeople as they try to escape. There’s my colleague, latched onto John Thune like a sea lamprey.

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The carnage of fact-finding roars around us, but this is ritualized, stylized mayhem. The politicians have their lines, their lockstep. The reporters know they won’t get anything other than a sound bite, if they even get that. Mitch McConnell may be trying to persuade his party to replace Obamacare with the legislative equivalent of a high school chemistry accident, but when he returns the gaze of 50 iPhone cameras, his eyes are not the window to his turbulent soul.

The evasive, boilerplate answers. The dispiriting contrast between the sense of things happening and the garbage you discover written down in your notebook afterward. In the Trump era, our best, most useful work seems to emerge from shadowy sessions with teed-off anonymice, not elaborate Kabuki performances in which John Cornyn’s indigestion might be mistaken for a brewing GOP revolt.

Standing in the hallway, waiting for someone important to say nothing as he or she breezes past, one can’t help but wonder if this entire ceremony deserves to go the way of Obamacare (RIP). Yet what if Murkowski forgets herself and reveals a top-secret plan to sabotage the BCRA? What if another civilian gets body-slammed by a public servant? The Capitol corps will be there, ready and waiting to let the American people know. That’s a comforting thought. Let’s hope their phones stay charged.

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