All is fair in politics as lawmakers ask for an accounting of press corps' perks

November 05, 1991|By Peter Osterlund | Peter Osterlund,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Confession time. After all that press harping about congressional perquisites, it's only fair to point out that Capitol Hill provides members of the news media with a few taxpayer-financed benefits of their own.

That, at least, is the sentiment shared by many lawmakers, 16 of whom have sent a letter to the House Administration Committee requesting a comprehensive list of benefits enjoyed by Washington's press corps.

"There's a feeling that the press has set up a double standard," said Representative Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., one of the letter's co-signers.

"I used to be a reporter and am fully aware that some of the !! things journalists frown on and that lead people to negative conclusions are things they do as well."

Like what? Well, for starters, reporters who have congressional press credentials have been able to cash checks at the House bank -- the very same House bank where lawmakers' checks bounced over the years. Press members' privileges there were taken away Oct. 25 -- and, indeed, the bank itself is to be shuttered by the end of the year -- but, according to House Press Gallery Superintendent Thayer Illsley, journalists bounced checks there with great infrequency.

Then there's free parking around the Capitol complex for reporters detailed to cover events on the Hill.

Credentialed journalists can also patronize the cut-rate House and Senate stationery stores, where one can procure penlight batteries and Mont Blanc fountain pens at fire sale prices.

And members of the press are free to patronize the capitol's restaurants and cut-rate barber salons -- as is the public, although barber prices have just been increased somewhat.

Then there are the Capitol press galleries themselves -- office spaces where reporters can set up their telephones and computers, lawmakers can hold news conferences, and congressional staffers can distribute the reams of press releases generated on an average day.

Although the demand for such space far outstrips supply, it is provided free to credentialed journalists -- along with extensive staff support. While no single figure reflects the total cost of congressional press gallery operations and parking privileges, rough estimates hover around $2 million a year.

But all of this is a part of the "great tradition of free reporting of news of the Capitol," insists Myron Waldman, a Newsday reporter who chairs the Standing Committee of Correspondents, the press galleries' governing body.

Mr. Waldman concedes that large news organizations might have no difficulty reimbursing the government for their use of press facilities. But he frets that a hard-and-fast policy "could hurt the very small bureaus and one-man news operations who don't get frequent pay raises."

In the mean time, some news organizations send voluntary contributions to the U.S. Treasury -- token reimbursements not only for the use of press facilities in the Capitol but in the White House, the Pentagon, the State Department and elsewhere throughout the federal government. Times Mirror Corp., which owns The Sun, does not make such contributions.

"I just finished signing a voucher for $2,000," said Clark Hoyt, bureau chief for Knight-Ridder newspapers. "I realize it's more a token number than a real value . . . but it's at least our way of making some payment." The newspaper chain has sent the contribution for several years, he said.

Once the House administration panel provides its list of perks, it's not clear what -- if anything -- will be done to change the status quo.

"The members benefit from all this," said Mr. Illsley, referring to the press room facilities. Indeed, there seems to be little interest among lawmakers in taking steps that might reduce the number of reporters taking down their words. And those who signed the Oct. 30 letter seemed to treat their enterprise as something of a farce.

"I want to condemn Congress for trying to buy all you guys off with these perks," said Representative Philip M. Crane, R-Ill., who drafted the missive.

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