Things are back to normal this week, with the House-run cameras fixed on anyone who’s speaking and shooting the occasional room during the noise. But there is some interest in changing this. Five Democrats have proposed allowing C-SPAN to control the House’s own feed. Florida Republican Representative Matt Gaetz – who had a heated argument with Kevin McCarthy and a near altercation with Alabama Republican Mike Rogers when the speaker’s voice was captured by the nonprofit cable network – also supported the idea.
As someone who watches several orders of magnitude more House and Senate proceedings than the average US citizen, I’m not against allowing C-SPAN free range. It was interesting last week to see the expression on McCarthy’s face and to see Democrats as spectators of the GOP drama.
C-SPAN’s cameras also allowed us to see newly elected congressman George Santos sit in isolation earlier in the week and try to interact with fellow Republicans before finally becoming friends with Georgia Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene. And most importantly, viewers got to see first-hand some of the drama and arm-twisting during the five days it took to select a speaker.
But I wouldn’t be surprised if a majority of Republicans reject the C-SPAN proposal, as Democrats do whenever it’s a decision. And I can’t say I would blame them.
We wouldn’t have lost much if the House cameras were focused on the podium. Most of the time, the roving camera will show little more than a handful of representatives engaged in debate in front of the chamber while most of the seats on the floor remain empty.
That would look bad for the House. But it will be worse if the members feel compelled because the cameras come to the floor just to listen to each other’s conversations. As Woodrow Wilson wrote (when he was a political scientist, and before he became a terrible president), “Congress in session is Congress in public exhibition, while Congress in its committee room is Congress at work.”
That is still true today. Modern political scientists would add to the “committee room” what goes on in the offices of party members and leaders. That is where the real work of legislating and supervision takes place. Congressional representation also requires hours and hours of conversations with advocacy groups and individual voters in Washington and in countless meetings in home districts.
Ever since televised coverage of Congress began (in 1979 for the House, the year C-SPAN was created, and in 1986 for the Senate) there has been concern that politicians playing on camera will change how Congress is run, and not for the better. . For most, those fears proved to be overblown. The main change (other than better grooming among politicians) is that a series of members of the House of Representatives, from Newt Gingrich in the early days of C-SPAN to former Representative Louie Gohmert more recently, have made a name for themselves by giving drawn-out speeches. vacate the house room. (1)
That being said, there is more than enough incentive for DPR members to be show horses instead of workhorses. And giving a speech at least has some value even if the audience is small. But encouraging members of Congress to engage in attention-grabbing antics while camping on the House floor is not in the interest of democracy.
There are other risks. Will members of both parties be reluctant to talk to MPs from the other party for fear they will have to explain it to their supporters at home? Do some viewers see the empty room as proof that lazy politicians are avoiding their responsibilities?
On balance, I’d still be happy to invite the camera, and let the chips fall where they may. But I am not the party leader responsible for having my conference members make a good impression. I hope McCarthy, like past speakers of both parties, leaves things as they are.
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(1) Gingrich used the speech, including an episode in which Speaker Tip O’Neill ordered the House cameras to show that Gingrich was speaking to an empty chamber, to gain attention that helped him eventually lead the House of Republicans. Gohmert was less successful, with his House career ending with an also-ran effort to defeat Texas Governor Greg Abbott in the 2022 primary.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. A former political science professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University, he writes the Plain About Politics Blog.
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