Scott MacFarlane and Rick Yarbough
Dozens of news conferences by members of Congress since the government shutdown began have cost more than $30,000, News4's I-Team has learned.
Members of Congress have staged about 50 news conferences on Capitol Hill in the 15 days since the beginning of the partial government shutdown, even as Congressional negotiations to end the impasse suffer stalls and breakdowns.
A review of government databases by the News4 I-Team show many of the dozens of news conference events were staged at taxpayer-funded television and radio studios inside the U.S. Capitol.
Staffers told the News4 I-Team the studios, which are a short walk away from the offices of U.S. House members and Senators, remained open and "deemed essential" during the shutdown.
Estimates based on payroll records reviewed by the News4 I-Team show staffing for the House and Senate studios and related services will have cost $38,000 since the shutdown began.
Equipment and lighting expenses were unclearly listed in publicly released databases. There are four broadcast studios for U.S. House member use, including a professionally lit studio adorned with flags and with capacity for dozens of reporters and cameras in the basement of the Capitol Visitor’s Center.
"[The studios] look more like a perk, not a necessity," Pete Sepp of the National Taxpayers Union said. "Lawmakers can and do have wide access to broadcast outlets of all kinds."
Ron Bonjean, a former communications strategist for former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert and co-owner of Singer Bonjean Strategies, said news conferences have partly replaced one-on-one conversations as a negotiations technique amid the government stalemate.
“These press conferences send messages to the other side,” Bonjean said. “That’s how leaders are finding out the reaction to their proposals.”
Only one of the taxpayer-supported news conferences staged since Oct. 1 -- and listed in the Congressional database reviewed by the News4 I-Team -- featured members of both political parties. It was an Oct. 9 news conference focused on an extension of farm legislation.
"The House and Senate Radio and TV galleries are a service to reporters and members of Congress," said a House TV gallery spokeswoman. "It is a non-partisan operation. Staff is selected by reporters and approved by the Speaker of the House. Press conferences allow reporters access to members of Congress."
Members of Congress cannot appear in the studios uninvited.