Reporters have covered the House from its earliest days, providing a vital link between the people and their Representatives. When the House designed a new chamber in 1857, it put the press front and center—literally. A reporters’ gallery located at the front of the room, just above the rostrum, gave prominently placed desks a panoramic view of the chamber. Lobbies just outside the reporters’ gallery included desks, pens, ink, and other necessary supplies. Telegraph services, however, proved the most exciting introduction, because reporters could now file stories in record time.
Technological advances and the rise of national news journals made the reporters’ gallery crowded in the years after the Civil War. Correspondents were well-known in the Capitol corridors. Some also worked as committee clerks and lobbyists. By 1877, public sentiment condemned the mushrooming conflicts of interest, and the press decided to regulate its members. Several leading reporters hammered out rules to ensure journalistic credibility, starting with who was allowed to sit in the reporters’ gallery. With House Speaker Samuel Randall’s acquiescence in 1879, congressional reporters created the Standing Committee of Correspondents, a semi-autonomous group that issued press credentials in the House. The aggregate of reporters with credentials became known as the Press Gallery, after the place where they sat.
Since 1879, only correspondents with official Press Gallery passes report the work of Congress from the chamber itself. Press Gallery passes in the House Collection trace a century and a half of access to the center of the action.
This little card is the earliest known congressional press pass. It was issued in 1880, during the first Congress in which the House required that reporters have such credentials, and several years before they were used in the Senate. Speaker Samuel Randall, who oversaw the creation of the Committee of Correspondents, signed the pass for William H. Scudder, an Indiana reporter who wrote for the Indianapolis News.
Like many reporters, Scudder had previously held multiple positions in Washington, including as the House’s Parliamentarian (then called the Clerk to the Speaker’s Table) in the 1870s. In fact, potential conflicts of interest such as Scudder’s led directly to the creation of press credentials. Reporters received credentials only if they also earned most of their livelihood as correspondents, not as parliamentarians, committee clerks, or paid lobbyists. A reporter’s salary was perhaps insufficient for Scudder’s needs, because just two years later, he left the Press Gallery and took a job at the Pension Office.
By the 20th century, the House printed elaborate passes with the correspondents’ names and the signatures of both House and Senate leadership. Austin Heiss used this pass, which gave him access to House and Senate reporters’ galleries, in 1910. At the time, he wrote for the New Orleans Times-Democrat and the Philadelphia Evening-Democrat, but his original interest was the Ohio delegation. Heiss was a Washington fixture for decades, sending dispatches to the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Like many congressional reporters, he had cut his teeth in state politics, writing from the Ohio state capital for several local papers at once. One account of Heiss’s career deemed his political acumen “second to none.”
Longtime radio announcer and journalist Charles E. Lewis reported from the House Chamber for only a few months in 1944, but he kept this pass in his wallet until the day he died. Unique in the House’s press collection, this example was originally a visitor’s pass. Space may have been tight in the usual reporters’ gallery seats, or perhaps he had a temporary spot. Lewis sat in Gallery 7, directly across from the Speaker’s rostrum, while filling in for fellow WOL broadcaster Fulton Lewis, Jr. Charles Lewis was part of the increasingly mobile supply of talented radio journalists. He began his work in Buffalo, New York, moved to Washington to take advantage of the wartime growth in radio, and then moved on to a career in Detroit. Fulton Lewis, Jr., the man for whom he substituted, was also a noted radio voice. His conservative commentary program was heard on more than 500 stations.
Radio reporters like Charles Lewis and Fulton Lewis, Jr., had a hard time breaking into the House Press Gallery. Years after radio entered most homes and over the objections of many print reporters, the House finally reserved “such portion of the gallery of the House of Representatives as may be necessary to accommodate reporters of news to be disseminated by radio.” House Speaker William Bankhead presented Fulton Lewis, Jr., president of the Radio Correspondents Association, the key to the new radio gallery offices at a ceremony in 1939.
In the 20th century, news agencies like United Press Association provided congressional reporting for newspapers that did not have correspondents on the ground. UP reporter James F. Cunningham used this press pass when he covered the House and Senate in the 1950s. Cunningham also wrote exclusive stories for the Washington Post, Time magazine, and the New York Times. The design of the press pass was essentially unchanged from the start of the century, except that Cunningham’s name is typed on the pre-printed card, perhaps a sign of the enormous increase in press credentials that needed to be issued.
By the mid-20th century, congressional work off the House floor was covered so energetically that it sometimes required press credentials, too. This well-worn pass was used during the 1974 Watergate hearings, when the House Judiciary Committee’s hearing room in the Cannon Building was crammed with reporters. Four television networks, plus countless radio and print reporters, changed the way Americans experienced Congress and its proceedings. Tina Tate, the first woman employed in the House Radio-TV Gallery, described what it was like to be a reporter in those hearings.
Reporters have prime seats in the House Chamber, and some of the most crowded moments in the Press Gallery are Joint Sessions. This pass admitted the bearer to the reporters’ gallery during the 2003 State of the Union address. It departs from ordinary Press Gallery passes in that it was issued for a single, specific event. It also differs from State of the Union Visitors’ Gallery passes, which are elaborately printed and often saved as souvenirs.
Sources: Ralph McKenzie, Washington Correspondents Past and Present (New York: Newspaperdom, 1903); Donald A. Ritchie, Press Gallery: Congress and the Washington Correspondents (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991); Washington Evening Star, 20 July 1882; Indianapolis Sentinel, 2 March 1874; Washington Evening Star, 20 July 1882.Follow @USHouseHistory