When I first started in the business of keeping an eye on Congress in the 1980s, there was one publication that was mandatory reading for everyone - The Congressional Record. The Record is the official publication of the proceedings of Congress and while it is still published, I have not seen the printed version in many years (I do have an old copy under my desk that I have saved for sentimental reasons). Even though the printed version of the Congressional Record is a relic, the electronic version, published every morning when Congress is in session, is still very important and remains a vital source of information on Congressional proceedings.
The Congressional Record details what transpired in Congress the previous day. It details what bills were introduced, what bills were reported out of committee, what bills had actions on the floor, and what Congresspersons and Senators actually said on the floor (officially). The work of Congress is broad, dealing with many topics and thousands of bills. The Congressional Record may be the first place you may notice a specific bill has been introduced. It is the only place you can find members' official remarks, made "on the Record," since all floor debate is recorded verbatim (subject to corrections, of course) and printed.
Every congressional monitor has some mechanism and procedure to keep an eye on the Congressional Record. They look at it every morning online or have a specialized service (such as GalleryWatch.com) run automated searches for specific topics as soon as the new Congressional Record is released. The Congressional Record cannot be replaced and at this time has no substitutes, though no doubts in a few years some of its unique and exclusive qualities, particularly floor debate will be available elsewhere (it is available now if you watch C-SPAN). Technically, bill action reporting has been challenged already by real-time bill actions notices from GalleryWatch.
The Congressional Recordis published each weekday, and is usually released by the Government Printing Office early in the morning, but if Congress was debating on the floor late into the evening (or morning) the Record may be released in several parts throughout the day or over the course of several days. It is an official publication of Congress, it is useful and absolutely necessary, but is usually not sufficient for legislative monitoring. Years ago it was sufficient, because there was really nothing else to use. Today, that is not the case. The marketplace for information on Congress is very competitive and very sensitive to technological changes. Since Congress is not competitive nor is it overall technologically savvy, others that report and analyze what they do are definitely more savvy. The old paper Congressional Record is fast becoming an anachronism since it is readily available online. Do you want email alerts of specific items? Do you want instant alerts on specific actions on a bill? If so, you need to go beyond the official publications of Congress.
To fill the void left by the official sources, and to expand on the background on what happened in Congress the day before, there are several publications that will tell you more. These publications (either in print or online) are also necessary. Anyone who follows Congress regularly subscribes to one or them all. They of course are all different with their own unique advantages. My company publishes the youngest of them, CongressNow, which is only available online (no printed version, subscription required), but which provides more current information. The oldest is Congressional Quarterly's CQ Today, which traditionally has been very good at documenting what actually happened. The third is CongressDaily (subscription required), published by the National Journal, which offers a more prospective or predictive approach to events in Congress. I have used each one for different purposes, and all are excellent. Since they are written and edited by professional journalists, the topics they select are deemed by them to be the most newsworthy. If you want to follow everything or just something that isn't on the Capitol Hill media radar, you still need the Congressional Record or an online monitoring service, as no publication details all actions.
These publications feature small articles on specific topics and events, and their intrepid reporters are usually the best sources of Congressional information. They are also, like the Congressional daily newspapers I wrote about last month, fierce rivals. Even though their readership greatly overlaps, (as many users subscribe to each of them), they are always out to find the most important element before the other. They do not provide a complete transcript of debate, nor do they outline everything that happens. They do provide the blow-by-blow reports on what happened in committee or the political maneuvering of a floor vote or the prospects of a measure next week.
Congressional mavens are wary to have their name appear in the Congressional daily newspapers (unless it is good news), but getting your name in these publications can signify your "player" status on things. Like the newspapers, CongressNow, CQ Today, and CongressDaily are published each week day when Congress is in session. They are normally only a dozen or so pages long, though CongressNow will send the stories online as they are written. The printed versions look much like a standard newsletter, instead of a newspaper. Photographs are rare, but advertisements are of course very prominent, as these are commercial publications. Expect to spend between $1400 and $3500 per year to subscribe to them.
Why do you need such publications? The answer is very simple - they give you more detail of what is happening and the details are what Congressional monitors live on. The fact that a bill was introduced is pretty elementary, but the details of a compromise on an amendment that actually lets the bill move forward are much, much more important. One stage of the legislative process that is ripe for coverage of these publications is the all-important committee markup. The committee markup is when a committee or subcommittee meets to debate and make adjustments to a bill and votes to move it forward to another committee or the floor. Actions in a committee markup are not reported in the Congressional Record, nor is there usually any readily available transcript of what was said in the markup. There is also no easy way to get the text of committee amendments offered in the committee markup. Each one of the commercial publications will be there at the markup. You probably can see them in the press section of the room, as anyone can go to a markup session. They will then file a brief story of what transpired and "who punched whom" for their morning or online editions. If you could not attend a markup session yourself, there is no other way of knowing what happened, besides waiting for the Congressional Record the next day, which will then only say something like this: "HR 123 reported out of the Ways and Means Committee with amendments".
The daily Congressional publications also report on events on the Hill, hearing testimony, conference committees, and press conferences, and will quote key legislative players on the bills' prospects or specific provisions. These publications do not track all legislation, just the ones that are especially newsworthy. Full bill tracking has been and will be another topic for this column.
The National Journaland Congressional Quarterly also publish weekly magazines on Congress. My favorite is the National Journal magazine that comes out on Fridays.
Hopefully you are getting the picture - there are lots of people reporting on Congress. There are newspapers, periodicals, magazines, online sources, official sources, commercial sources. This is not only an important business of following public policy making - it is a big business as well. In addition to these publications that cover all major issues, there are dozens of specialized publications that will cover a specific area: i.e., Communications, Energy, Defense, or Health Care. Add into the mix hundreds of trade associations representing every walk of life in the country, each publishing their own newsletters, and you have the most covered legislative body in the world - the U.S. Congress.
The Congressional Recordand the commercial daily publications are excellent for more detail, but they do not provide all the details. As I mentioned above, the world of a Congressional monitor is detail and more detail. The most excruciating details of legislation lie in the minutiae of the legislative process, important documents and letters, and the specific textual provisions within a bill. This level of detail is still a relatively underground world, and this is world in which I live. Though this underground world is quickly changing, too.
The daily newspapers give you a sense of the environment, the Congressional Record gives you an official narrative, and the daily commercial publications give you a more detailed narrative. But there is still more that is needed. This world of detail is the closest description to my daily world. Perhaps readers may be surprised that after two years of writing this column, I have finally gotten to writing about what I do and you still will have to wait to find out more. That doesn't surprise me at all. Congress is like a big city, with towering skyscrapers, streets, and a complete underground world. Underground worlds take time to explain. I live underground, the newspapers are at street level, and the commercial periodicals like CQ, CongressNow and CongressDaily are in the lobbies and first floors. Every step of the process, every angle of Congress, is covered in some form by someone.