Washington newsrooms don’t generate too many tick-tocks these days, and that’s too bad. As a bare-bones version of the form in Sunday’s Washington Post shows, these behind-the-scenes looks, while overdone in Wall Street reporting, can provide a lot of context that too often gets squeezed out of the story.
The Post’s subject was Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., chairman of the Senate banking committee and chief shepherd of the financial reform bill. While lots of players have lots at stake in the legislation, the story smartly highlights what Dodd, who decided not to run for a sixth term, has on the line, calling the overhaul “his last shot at a major piece of legislation.”
The story captures a lot of the tense back and forth between Dodd and would-be Republican partners, including Richard Shelby and Bob Corker—and reveals just how worried the White House was that Dodd “would give away too much.”
The administration’s concerns spiked when Dodd traveled with Corker to Central America. Officially, the trip was a mission to discuss U.S. political and economic relations with senior officials in five countries. But for the senators, it was a chance to huddle away from the pressures of Washington. Spotty cellphone coverage made it tougher for Geithner and Dodd to talk.
Fearing that a deal was close, Geithner decided to make an unscheduled trip to Central America to see the pair of senators before it was too late. But when one of Geithner’s aides called Dodd to share the plan, the senator waved them off. Trust me, Dodd told them.
The Huffington Post’s Ryan Grim did some great reporting back in March, when, despite his bipartisan intentions, Dodd decided to move forward with his bill alone, without any GOP support.
The Post’s Sunday story fills in some details about Corker’s continuing hope that he could at least get the committee to consider some of his amendments to the bill.
Dodd had initially assured Corker that the huge stack of proposals would be debated. But two days before the committee vote, Corker got a call from Dodd in Connecticut. Dodd and Shelby had agreed that no amendments would be heard. Corker was livid.
Dodd would later say the Republicans made a strategic decision not to offer amendments. But according to Corker, Dodd had threatened to block the amendments, so the Republicans withdrew them. Among the Republican committee members themselves, there were disagreements over which amendments — some contradicting one another — were important.
It’s too bad the Post didn’t deconstruct that he-said/she-said account, to help readers make sense of what really happened.
The story also goes too lightly on several important players. Majority Leader Harry Reid gets only a passing mention, and there’s not a single indication that Dodd ever dealt with a lobbyist or other business force hoping to influence the legislation. That hardly seems possible.
And it moves too quickly over the whole “bailout” flap, doing nothing to counter the GOP’s flawed description of the provision to shut down failing financial institutions.
Instead, the piece says White House officials opposed the fund and “said the measure had been suggested by Republicans on the banking committee,” but doesn’t ask Dodd, or Corker, or anyone else, to sort out those facts.
Despite those shortcomings, the story is a nice reminder of what a tick-tock can add. Call me a sucker for a good story, but this is nice reading:
After the news conferences had ended and other lawmakers had cleared out, Dodd headed to the empty Senate. Ignoring protocol, he invited nearly two dozen staff members to sit at the senators’ desks and thanked them for the long hours and lost weekends.
There’s plenty more to learn about the financial reform bill’s path through Congress. But this is a nice angle into the bill, and a good start on that bigger story.
— Further Reading:
The Price of Admission: Andrew Ross Sorkin’s debut and the limits of access journalismHolly Yeager is CJR's Peterson Fellow, covering fiscal and economic policy. She is based in Washington and reachable at firstname.lastname@example.org.