I’ve watched tourists and lobbyists grow confounded at trying to navigate the arcane ways of Capitol Hill for years. They struggle to find the right person to talk to. They leave repeated voicemails, never receiving a returned phone call.
What are they doing wrong?
They haven’t hacked in.
Capitol Hill is a binary computer system. Either or. A system of zeros and ones. Candidates are elected. Candidates are defeated. Congress passes bills. Congress defeats bills.
But as you know, computers can be hacked. Often through backdoors.
In the digital world, backdoors are pathways to access. Frequently hidden. Sometimes in obvious places. But only master hackers can locate them. In other words, going through the front door, or adhering to all of the conventional rules, is the most direct route. But the front door is also the most guarded. Only certain people are granted front door access. But hackers will find the back door. And a good hacker can be Members of Congress, aides, lobbyists or journalists. They’ll use backdoors to attach an amendment to spending bill. Bypass a press secretary to land an elusive interview. Gain access to talk up their point of view with someone influential.
The Congressional mainframe is guarded by a firewall, often an office receptionist, who answers the phone and greets guests. This person protects against the worms, controlling who gets in. But in a bit of irony, the receptionist firewall is actually fairly weak. You see, the receptionist is usually the least senior person in the office. Sometimes even an intern. They may be the first layer of security. But they also have the least access to crucial information. Is the boss available to appear on CNN? Is he going to offer his second degree amendment tomorrow or Thursday?
That’s when it’s handy to know where the backdoors are. And Capitol Hill is loaded with thousands of them. Both literal and figurative.
Here are a few.
The Senate holds many of its most-prominent, high-profile hearings in what’s called the Central Hearing Facility in the Hart Senate Office Building. Senators used the room for the Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito’s confirmation hearings. You can expect the same thing for Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor. The room is modern with wood-paneled walls and a white and grey marble wall behind the dais. Reporters can perch above the room from “press boxes” that resemble broadcast booths at a sports arena.
Crowds swell in an alcove outside the room in the Hart building. TV crews roam the hall, angling for a shot of an arriving senator or a key witness. But if you’re in Hart looking for someone big, you’re in the wrong building. That’s because the backdoor for the Central Hearing Facility is not in Hart, but next door in the Dirksen Senate Office Building. You see, Dirksen and Hart merge into each other. And if you know where to look, there are a series of innocent looking doorways in Dirksen that open up into Hart. There’s a door on the second floor of Dirksen that says “senators only.” That’s where lawmakers enter the Central Hearing Facility. The door leads to a small lounge which takes the senators “backstage” behind the white and marble backdrop.
Star witnesses enter through this door, too. And they’re often kept in a “ready room” down the back hallway in Dirksen as well. I’ve interviewed many a lawmaker and witness after a hearing in that Dirksen corridor. Meantime, the competition wastes its time over in Hart, not even looking in the correct building.
Sometimes lawmakers wishing to duck the press can fall victim to Congressional backdoors.
Former Sen. Larry Craig (R-ID) returned to Washington in September, 2007, determined to avoid reporters at all costs. Police in Minnesota arrested Craig for lewd conduct in connection with an incident in a bathroom stall at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.
Reporters ranged around the Capitol in search of Craig. But little did they know he’d show up right where they needed him to be. Thanks to a backdoor.
President Bush had just nominated Michael Mukasey for Attorney General. Mukasey scheduled a number of courtesy calls with members of the Judiciary Committee which would handle his confirmation hearings. One was with the then-Republican Chairman of the Judiciary panel, Sen. Arlen Specter (D-PA).
The most-senior senators are assigned hideaway offices around the Capitol. These are special, sometimes ornate offices away from their usual digs in the Senate office buildings. Senators often retreat to the hideaways to read, study or caucus with staff or special guests. And Specter summoned Mukasey to pow-wow with him in his hideaway.
A phalanx of cameras waited outside Specter’s hideaway to snare a few comments from Mukasey when he arrived for his meeting with the senator. Only problem was, the Specter-Mukasey meeting became “B side” news. That’s because Larry Craig unwittingly showed up at his hideaway office next door to Specter’s office. The reporters ditched Mukasey and pounced instead on Craig.
Hideaway backdoors can also reveal a lot about relationships. Just observe who comes and goes from a hideaway office. That is, if you know where a hideaway office is located.
The hideaway of Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) is one of the most-opulent on Capitol Hill. And it’s known for its stellar view of the National Mall. One day three years ago, I walked past Kennedy’s office several times. A security detail waited outside. Members of the Senate wait staff ushered in trays of piping hot lunches and iced tea from a mobile cart parked in the hall. A little later I walked by as then-newly-elected House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) emerged and bid goodbye to Kennedy after a lunch appointment. The two traded barbs in the corridor for a moment.
Just days before in front of a packed press conference, Boehner berated Kennedy’s proposal to reform immigration. But here they were, enjoying each other’s company over a meal. Two Catholics who worked together as powerful committee chairmen a few years before to pass the No Child Left Behind law. Kennedy even flew to Ohio to be on hand as President Bush signed the plan into law in the Republican leader’s Congressional district.
There are plenty of backdoors in the House, too.
Last June, then-presidential candidate Barack Obama dispatched two members of his vice presidential search team to talk with Democratic Congressional leaders. Current Attorney General Eric Holder and former Fannie Mae CEO Jim Johnson visited with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) before heading to the House to talk with Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA).
Many of us in the press wanted to chat with the VP vetting team about the selection process. But we took special interest in Johnson. There was word that he received special loans from former Countrywide CEO Angelo Mozilo.
The front door to Hoyer’s office is clearly marked and located off a major Capitol artery. But there’s a backdoor, too. It’s a non-descript door near an elegant, spiral staircase that’s reminiscent of “Gone With the Wind.” Ascend those steps and you’re near the front entrance to the Speaker’s office.
Reporters tracking Holder and Johnson watched them go in the main door of Hoyer’s office suite but failed to capture any video. The only Congressional leader they still needed to drop in on was Pelosi. So I gambled they would leave through Hoyer’s backdoor and climb the staircase to see Pelosi.
I stood by the backdoor of Hoyer’s office with a wireless microphone and stationed a cameraman at the top of the steps. Sure enough, Holder and Johnson emerged and zipped up the staircase to meet the Speaker. Neither said very much. Certainly not Johnson as I quizzed him on the stairs about Countrywide. But we nabbed the video we needed and at least culled the requisite “no comment.”.
Front doors can serve as backdoors, too.
Earlier this spring, a group of Puerto Rican nationalists caused a ruckus in the House chamber and were removed by U.S. Capitol Police officers. Photographers are prohibited from shooting video on the third floor of the Capitol. So we arranged to open the doors of the House Radio-TV Gallery and shot into the hall as police escorted the prisoners to the elevator. The police complained mildly. But we were shooting video on our turf. The door just opened into the hall. In other words, if you can’t shoot video from the room that’s expressly reserved for electronic media in the Capitol, where can you shoot?
One of my favorite backdoors in the Capitol is not a physical threshold. But a virtual one.
In July 2005, Rep. Steven LaTourette (R-OH) proved to be one of the decisive votes to help the GOP lug the controversial Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) across the finish line. LaTourette is one of the most pro-labor Republicans in the House and initially opposed the treaty. But the night of the vote, LaTourette reconsidered and voted in favor.
Several hours before the vote, LaTourette told me privately he was wrestling with his vote but declined to be interviewed.
“Maybe later,” the Ohio Republican told me.
Sure enough, the House okayed CAFTA by a razor-thin margin. And every reporter in the building wanted to chat with LaTourette. But the Congressman remained on the House floor, a sanctum for lawmakers wishing to avoid the press.
Finally, then-Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez and former U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman flooded the Speaker’s Lobby to revel in their success to reporters. I joined the scrum. And that’s when one of the House chamber doorkeepers whispered in my ear.
“LaTourette says he’ll speak to you. But he only wants to talk with you. Nobody else,” the doorkeeper said. “Just act like you’re listening to Gutierrez and keep your eye on me. We’ll bring him out a side door and you can talk to him.”
So, I leaned into to half-listen to Gutierrez, not really paying attention, awaiting the signal from the doorkeeper. Periodically, I’d glance up and the doorkeeper would signal no, like a pitcher shaking off his catcher. Finally he nodded and I discreetly withdrew from the scrum. I met LaTourette in the ceremonial office of then-House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL). I was the only reporter LaTourette talked to that night.
On that particular night, a very obvious door in the Speaker’s suite morphed into the backdoor that led me past the encrypted algorithms guarding that vote. But none of my reporting colleagues sufficiently “hacked in” to score a few minutes with LaTourette.
Once I interviewed LaTourette, that passage ceased to be a backdoor. And it returned to its normal state as just another passageway to the Speaker’s Office.
- Chad Pergram covers Congress for FOX News. He’s won an Edward R. Murrow Award and the Joan Barone Award for his reporting on Capitol Hill. The Speaker’s Lobby is a long, ornate hallway behind the House chamber where reporters, aides and lawmakers gather during votes.