For The Record

The reporters for Congress' daily transcript can't let themselves get caught up in history, even while they're hanging on every word.

January 25, 1999|By RICHARD O'MARA | RICHARD O'MARA,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Jerry Linnell is not easily impressed by big-time political events.

He has been working on Capitol Hill for a quarter of a century. He is a veteran court reporter, one of those people who stenographically records every word said on the floor of the House and Senate. Over that time, a lot of history has flowed through his fingers and into the pages of the Congressional Record.

For him, Day One of President Clinton's impeachment trial produced an unexpected personal reaction.

"When I first went out onto the Senate floor, my stomach was churning," he said. "My goosebumps made me look like a muscle man. It lasted two or three minutes, until I started writing."

And Day Two?

"I calmed down."

Calm is necessary in his business. To get things down word for word is his reason for being on the Senate floor. The Congressional Record has to come out by the next morning, as flawless as the seven official reporters who cover the Senate and their backup team can make it.

It is not easy work. The reporters sit through round-the-clock sessions; they endure, and record, every word of filibusters. They have to be present at long quorum calls, and deal with every type of regional accent, occasionally even foreign ones, and keep up with the pace of every speaker, even people like the late Hubert Humphrey, possibly the fastest talker in Senate history.

The process is one long rush, from the chaplain's opening prayer until the last word is uttered and the gavel falls, all driven by the frequently dueling imperatives of accuracy and speed.

Linnell spends only 10 minutes at a time on the floor. He then yields his place to one of his colleagues and returns -- with his little mauve stenographic machine protruding before his midsection, like a cigarette girl's tray -- to the subterranean office beneath the Capitol out of which the Official Reporters of Debates of the United States Senate operate.

There he pours his 10 minutes' worth of history into a computer, which translates the phonetic stenographic language into standard English. He cleans it up, dispatches it electronically to one of three transcribers; they check it, then send it back for another look by Linnell.

A hard copy goes to Chief Reporter Ron Kavulick, and Linnell returns to the Senate floor for another 10-minute stint.

Later in the day, his reports, and his colleagues', will find their way to the Government Printing Office. "The transcript," Kavulick says, "is a work in progress -- all day long."

By 9 a.m. the next morning, an account of the events of the previous day's Senate session is on the desk of every congressional representative and senator, in the mailboxes of offices throughout the federal government, and in the mail to libraries and other subscribers around the globe. It also goes on the Internet, all 60 to 75 pages of densely packed type. No pictures, no illustrations.

Kavulick, a lean, white-haired 57-year-old, who worked the floor himself for 16 years before being named chief reporter, understands the psychology generated by such an event as an impeachment, and its potential for derailing the reporters' concentration. But he lives in absolute certainty that it won't.

"I know that when the reporters first went out there they felt a sense of awe at this historic moment. I've sensed this myself when I reported on emotional speeches. But once that sense of the moment has sunk in, you realize that it's just another story."

From that point on, the brain goes on automatic pilot, and the fingers do all the work.

The whole story

When historians look back some years hence to learn what transpired in the House and Senate in the winter of 1998-99, they will find the most complete story in the Congressional Record. It will be an all-inclusive account of Puritanical rage, dissembling speeches, patriotic posturing and widespread indignation fueled by manifest political partisanship gone over the top. It will be complete, this account, though absent analysis (good or bad) and bias (except that evident in the words of those speaking), a record more thorough and more precise than that found in any newspaper or magazine, or broadcast by any television or radio program, and more subtle and suggestive of the motives and intentions of the participants than that produced anywhere else.

For that's what the Congressional Record provides: not only a verbatim account, but a sense of intention, which comes through as the lawmakers explain their purposes in their own words. For that reason judges and lawyers frequently refer to the Congressional Record.

Congress is required by the Constitution to keep a journal of its proceedings, but that journal is not the Congressional Record.

The House and Senate journals provide the official story, the record of proceedings, the introduction of bills, the results of votes. It is kept by clerks, and does not include discussion -- that is, a sense of motive.

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