Retired AP Journalist Recounts 4 Decades Covering Congress


WASHINGTON — In the waning moments of four decades of Democratic sway over the House, I saw a move that seems unthinkable today. On the evening of November 29, 1994, they let the top Republican preside, briefly, over the chamber.

It was a show of respect and affection for Minority Leader Bob Michel, R-Ill., who retired after a 38-year career in the House entirely under Democrats. He kissed outgoing President Tom Foley, D-Wash. The Republicans took over in January under the combative Rep. Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., Abandoning Michel’s Consensus Style.

These feelings between leaders have practically disappeared. In their place are suspicion and even hostility, symbolized most clearly by the magnetometers lawmakers must pass through before entering the Chamber.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., installed the metal detectors over GOP objections after the brutal January 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol by supporters of then-President Donald Trump. Democrats have also expressed concerns about Republican lawmakers who carry guns.

As I retire after nearly four decades covering Capitol Hill, this contrast and the forces behind it illustrate why I’ve loved covering Congress — and why I’ve recently felt discouraged.

Congress is dominated by masters of the political hardball who survived a Darwinian elimination of the nation’s most ambitious politicians. Covering them is like watching an engrossing theatrical drama, except you can walk behind the curtain and chat with the actors.

In a moment of irony, I watched as Gingrich in 1998, then president, lashed out at the very conservatives who propelled his own rise after they opposed his budget deal with President Bill Clinton as surrender. Gingrich mocked them as a “perfectionist caucus,” a salute to the compromises needed in a divided government. He is soon announcing his retirement.

Around midnight on September 11, 2001, I saw Democrats and Republicans, in a show of solidarity on the steps of the Capitol, spontaneously chanting “God Bless America.”

Pelosi triumphantly wielded the gavel in 2007 when she became the first woman to speak. “For our daughters and granddaughters, we broke the marble ceiling,” the California Democrat said.

Eight years later, I saw the awe in the eyes of House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, a Catholic, as he greeted Pope Francis, whom he had invited to address Congress.

I saw the shock on Republicans’ faces the very next morning as they left a Capitol basement meeting where Boehner revealed he was stepping down, stalked by a new generation of far-right conservatives, the House Freedom Caucus.

Democrats and Republicans cheered when House GOP No. 3 Leader Steve Scalise of Louisiana limped into the chamber in 2017, three months after he was seriously injured when a gunman attacked a practice republican baseball.

I have seen the change. Since Pelosi took office in 1987, the number of women in Congress has increased from 25 to 146. There are about 130 lawmakers of color, up from 38 previously.

And I have witnessed upheavals. As of 2017, Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., and others resigned amid the #MeToo sexual harassment movement.

I had a deeply embarrassing close encounter with a newly sworn in president in 2001. I was assigned to a Senate ceremonial room where new presidents sign papers immediately after their inaugural address.

Someone brushed my elbow. Next to me was President George W. Bush. I tried to lure her in with a folksy, “So how did it go?” He parried what was probably his first journalistic question as president with a nod, adding, “Good.”

Since arriving in Washington in 1983, I have watched debates about wars, terrorism, recessions, government shutdowns, and taxes. Three of the four presidential impeachment trials in history. Fights for social justice, abortion, a pandemic.

I still hear Democrats and Republicans making dinner plans. The grief over the accidental traffic deaths this month of Rep. Jackie Walorski, R-Ind., and two aides was bipartisan and sincere.

Yet today’s middle ground seems narrower, the atmosphere darker, the stakes higher.

Pelosi called House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-California, a “moron” after he opposed mask mandates in the House as the coronavirus pandemic escalated. McCarthy said it would be “hard not to hit her” with the gavel if he became a speaker. His spokesperson called it a joke.

Both parties have fewer moderates. House districts increasingly drawn to partisan advantage are pushing Democrats to the left, Republicans to the right as they appeal to their most militant primary voters.

Voters do their own sorting of which social media and news outlets they believe in. This hardens voters’ opinions, further limiting lawmakers’ willingness to compromise.

Filibusters in the Senate demanding bills get 60 votes are commonplace, derailing almost anything without broad bipartisan support.

At the beginning of this century, most Supreme Court nominees were approved easily.

In 2016, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., refused to let President Barack Obama fill a Supreme Court vacancy, citing the next election in nine full months. Then, just weeks before Election Day 2020, McConnell swept a Trump appointee through the Senate, giving the court a 6-3 conservative majority and McConnell a legacy that outraged Democrats.

None of this comes close to Trump’s baseless claim that the 2020 election was stolen from him, a claim denied by dozens of courts, local officials and his own attorney general.

Its false construction fueled the January 6 insurrection. I wasn’t on Capitol Hill because of the pandemic, but let’s not forget the death, the injury, the destruction, and the disheartening sense that democracy itself had been stained.

Just hours after the crowd dispersed, more than half of House Republicans and eight GOP senators voted against certifying Democrat Joe Biden’s victory. McCarthy initially said Trump “bears responsibility” for the attack, but later blocked a bipartisan investigation.

Many Republicans downplayed or diverted attention from that calamitous day. Trump remains the dominant figure in his party.

Republicans have backed Trump’s claims that this month’s court-sanctioned search of his Mar-a-Lago estate was politically motivated. The FBI is led by Trump-appointed director Christopher Wray and has emerged with sensitive national security documents that are federal property.

Anti-government rhetoric from politicians is not new. But these latest attacks on faith in government and the electoral system that underpins it — by powerful influencers like a former president and his elected supporters — come amid warnings from authorities about rising calls for violence, even civil war.

Despite ever-tighter security, reporters still walk unimpeded in most hallways of the Capitol.

I’ve bumped into celebrities from Muhammad Ali to Jon Stewart. But the politicians left the most lasting impressions.

Senate Republican Leader Bob Dole of Kansas has shown wit at the speed of light. After the newly elected Clinton dined with GOP senators in a gesture of bipartisanship, he described a novel he had read involving a murdered Democratic senator. “A happy ending!” Dole replied

Gingrich’s hardening of partisan enmity — he advised describing Democrats with focus group-tested words like “traitors” and “sick” — was sometimes answered in kind. Rep. Sam Gibbons, D-Fla., angrily walked out of a 1995 House hearing on the Medicare cuts Republicans wanted. “I had to fight you 50 years ago,” shouted Gibbons, who parachuted into France behind Nazi lines on D-Day.

I’ve seen agreements to authorize a military response to 9/11, prevent the Great Recession of 2008 from getting worse, and spend billions of dollars to counter the pandemic.

Republicans have enacted huge tax cuts and created Medicare coverage for prescription drugs. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, DN.Y., recently reinforced a top Biden priority to strengthen environment and health initiatives.

Trump’s four years of breaking standards have been marked by constant clashes with Congress, including Republicans, from whom he tolerated no dissent.

I pushed a Republican, private critic of Trump, to speak publicly. “He would send me to Gitmo,” he said.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., just 48, announced in early 2018 that he would retire. He later told author Tim Alberta that he couldn’t stand two more years working with Trump.

The cautious McConnell and the impulsive Trump have long had a strained relationship. It was severed when McConnell, who voted to acquit Trump on January 6 on the grounds that he had already left the White House, immediately blamed him as “practically and morally responsible” for the riot.

I have seen legislators risk their jobs by toeing the party line. Democrats lost dozens of seats in 1994 after rallying behind Clinton’s deficit-cutting agenda. They lost again in 2010 after the Obama Health Care Act was signed into law.

And I saw co-workers furious as they wandered off. Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, elicited gasps with his decisive thumbs that derailed Trump’s effort to repeal Obama’s health care law.

Ten House Republicans voted to impeach Trump for the insurrection. At least eight, including Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., Trump’s most implacable GOP enemy, will not be in Congress next year.

Lawmakers recently approved agreements helping Ukraine and veterans and slightly restricting guns – glimmers suggesting they can still work together.

Yet the confluence of today’s forces that erode faith in government institutions would not be recognizable to Foley and Michel.

Follow AP’s coverage of Congress at

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