C-SPAN Won’t Solve Your Democracy Problem, America


One part of Speaker Vote Week that received rave reviews was C-SPAN’s wall-to-wall coverage, with cameras showing live footage of lawmakers interacting on the House floor. Typically, he controls cameras that feed into C-SPAN and other news outlets when the House is in session. But without a speaker to set the rules of the house, C-SPAN’s cameras were able to roll to capture all kinds of interesting and entertaining activity.

Things went back to normal this week, with House-run cameras firmly fixated on whoever was speaking with the occasional wide shot of the chamber during the vote. But there is little interest in changing this. Five Democrats have proposed allowing C-SPAN to control its own feed of the House. Florida Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz — whose heated argument with Kevin McCarthy and Alabama Republican Mike Rogers during a speaker vote were caught by the nonprofit cable network — also supports the idea.

As someone who watches House and Senate proceedings many orders of magnitude more than the average US citizen, I am not against allowing C-SPAN free range. It was interesting last week to watch the expressions on McCarthy’s face and observe the Democrats as spectators of the GOP drama.

C-SPAN cameras also allowed us to see newly elected, truth-damaged Congressman George Santos sit in seclusion earlier in the week and then try to strike up a conversation with his fellow Republicans before befriending Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Green. And most of all, the five days it took viewers to choose the speaker saw some drama and hand-wringing.

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But I wouldn’t be surprised if a majority of Republicans shoot down the C-SPAN proposal, as Democrats have done every time they’ve had a decision. And I can’t say I blame them.

We won’t lose much to focus the house camera on the podium. Most of the time, moving cameras make out little more than a handful of delegates debating at the front of the chamber while most of the seats on the floor remain empty.

It will look bad for the House. But it would be worse if the cameras forced members to come on the floor to listen to each other. As Woodrow Wilson wrote (when he was a political scientist, and before he became the dreaded president), “Congress in session is Congress on public display, while Congress in its committee room is at work.”

It is still true today. Modern political scientists would add to the “committee room” what happens in the offices of members and party leaders. That is where the real work of law and enforcement takes place. Congressional representation requires hours and hours of conversations with advocacy groups and individual constituents both in Washington and in countless meetings in home districts.

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Ever since television coverage of Congress began (C-SPAN was created for the House in 1979 and for the Senate in 1986) there was concern that politicians playing to the camera would change the way Congress was run, and not for the better. . For the most part, those fears have proven to be overblown. The main change (besides better grooming of politicians) has been that a series of House lawmakers, from Newt Gingrich in the early days of C-SPAN to former Rep. Louie Gohmert more recently, have made a name for themselves by giving drawn-out speeches. To vacate the House Chamber.(1)

That said, House members have more than enough incentives to show horses rather than workhorses. And there is at least value in giving a speech even when the audience is young. But encouraging members of Congress to make attention-seeking antics while camped out on the House floor is not in the best interest of democracy.

There are other risks. Will members of both parties be afraid to even casually chat with legislators from the other party or have to explain it to their supporters back home? Will some viewers see an empty chamber as evidence that lazy politicians are shirking their responsibilities?

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On balance, I’d still prefer to invite the camera in, and let the chips fall where they may. But I am not a party leader responsible for making a good impression on my conference members. I expect McCarthy, like past speakers of both parties, to leave things as they are.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

• Republicans are finally breaking out of the Fox News bubble: Joshua Green

• The document that separates Biden and Trump: Jonathan Bernstein

• Republicans in Congress have an ethics problem: Juliana Goldman

(1) Gingrich used those speeches, including an episode in which Speaker Tip O’Neill ordered House cameras to reveal that Gingrich was speaking to an empty chamber, to gain attention that eventually helped him lead House Republicans. Curry. Gohmert was less successful, ending his House career, in an attempt to defeat Texas Governor Greg Abbott in the 2022 primary.

This column does not 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 professor of political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University, he writes a simple blog about politics.

More stories like this one are available at bloomberg.com/opinion


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