Letter From Judiciary: How to Survive a Markup

Fawn Johnson

Rule One—Empty your bladder. Rule Two—Charge your phone. These are the lessons in survival for anyone covering, lobbying or staffing lawmakers who "mark up" an 800-plus-page bill.

The Senate Judiciary Committee met for five long days over the course of two weeks to complete work on a sweeping immigration bill that would mark the biggest change to the law in almost 30 years. That calls for a lot of the little water bottles that dot the tables arranged in a large square around which the senators sit.

Senators can drink as much as they want—they come and go in the hours-long sessions, running in sometimes to yell "aye" on votes. But the committee staff and public viewers are essentially trapped, or they risk missing something crucial. Reporters, at least, can keep their seats, but the lobbyists and advocates in the room don't always have that luxury.

Here are some key rules to follow:

Time your coffee intake carefully. When Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., starts talking about Tibet, it's probably safe to make a run for it. Ditto for when Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, starts asking his prepared questions to the bill's authors that don't actually change anything.

"I shouldn't have had that tall iced coffee," laughed one relieved reporter as she rushed back into the markup after sitting through a longer-than-anticipated debate on high-tech visas.

Know that no matter how many outlets there are, there will not be enough. The reporters get first crack at the power strips under the press tables, but if you're late, you still may be out of luck. Sometimes it's hard to tell. At least three reporters were plugged in to a nonfunctional power strip on the third day of markup before one of us noticed. We then were treated to a Senate-employed engineer crawling under the table with a new one just as Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., was discussing the outlook for the day.

Then here come the lobbyists who sneak in (nicely) to steal some power for their own devices, which they are using to advise God-knows how many colleagues back at the office. One extremely nice reporter unplugged her own computer to make room for a lobbyist who had been there for eight hours already. Next scoop goes to her.

When in doubt, follow Twitter. It's hard to keep track of what's happening, even when you're in the room. Senators offer amendments but sometimes forget to tell everyone which ones they're talking about. The committee gets tired and sometimes passes big amendments by voice vote with barely a whimper from the opposition. Some senators say the same thing over and over and over again, regardless of the issue at hand. Don't be afraid to look at your neighbor's notes or computer to figure it out. Hell, you're sitting close enough.

But in the end, the best resource is Twitter. Several organizations, particularly those with large social-media followings, made sure to tweet out every amendment and the result for the smarter people watching at home. Amanda Peterson Beadle, from the Immigration Policy Center, offered the most comprehensive coverage, with tweets like this one: "With no discussion, the (hopefully?) last Grassley amdt to Hatch 10 fails 2-15."

Twitter also allows for snark, a necessary feature if you're going to be sitting in a room listening to blather for 12 hours. The immigration-advocacy group America's Voice had this offering as the markup's end was tantalizing close: "Sessions is submitting his final statement in writing instead of subjecting us to it now. Maybe most humane thing he's ever done."

Stay friendly. Remember, someone else has it worse than you. If you didn't stay up all night, you're better off than the committee staffers, whose work really only begins once the marathon debating sessions are over. A former Capitol Hill aide who has sat through many a markup (but not this one) is still bemoaning the lack of showers in the office buildings. "It's the worst time for an aide," she said.

People are packed in tight. Some advocates have come from all over the country to sit and watch what is, at times, literally nonsense. Everyone is tripping over everyone else. Everyone probably has something better to do. One advocate told me she was extremely happy that a debate on immigrant benefits came up on a day that the committee was supposed to be discussing work visas because it justified her presence.

Being friendly with the right people also has its perks. For example, ask the intern who is guarding the door what she's reading as you're walking in with your coffee, bagel, and gym bag. The signs that say, "No filming, No food or drinks, No signs, No standing, No large bags"—they don't really apply to you, or anyone really, as long as you're not antagonistic about it.