The one part of Speaker Vote Week that received rave reviews was C-SPAN’s wall-to-wall coverage, with cameras showing live scenes of lawmakers interacting on the House floor. Normally, when the House is in session it controls the cameras that feed into C-SPAN and other news outlets. But without a speaker in place to set House rules, C-SPAN’s cameras were able to roam, capturing all kinds of interesting and entertaining activity.
Things reverted to normal last week, with the House-run cameras firmly fixed on whoever was speaking along with the occasional wide shot of the chamber during votes. But there is some 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 almost-altercation with Alabama Republican Mike Rogers during the speaker vote was captured by the nonprofit cable network — also supports the idea.
As someone who watches several orders of magnitude more House and Senate proceedings than the average U.S. citizen, I’m not against allowing C-SPAN free range. It was interesting to see the expressions on McCarthy’s face and to observe Democrats as spectators of the GOP drama.
C-SPAN cameras also allowed us to see the newly elected, truth-impaired Congressman George Santos sitting isolated at the beginning of the week and then trying to interact with his fellow Republicans before finally seeming to make a friend of Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene. And most of all, viewers got to see firsthand some of the drama and arm-twisting over the five days it took to elect a speaker.
But I won’t be surprised if the majority of Republicans knock down the C-SPAN proposal, just as Democrats have done whenever it was their decision. And I can’t say I’ll blame them.
We wouldn’t be losing much to have the House cameras focused on the podium. Most of the time, roving cameras would reveal little beyond a handful of representatives engaging in debate in the front of the chamber while most seats on the floor remain empty.
That would look bad for the House. But it would be worse if members felt compelled because of the cameras to come to the floor just to listen to each other talk. As Woodrow Wilson wrote (when he was a political scientist, and before he became a terrible president), “Congress in session is Congress on public exhibition, whilst Congress in its committee rooms is Congress at work.”
That’s still true today. Modern political scientists would add to “committee rooms” what takes place in the offices of members and party leaders. That is where the real work of legislating and oversight happens. Congressional representation also requires hours and hours of conversations with advocacy groups and individual voters in both Washington and in countless meetings in home districts.
Ever since televised coverage of Congress started (in 1979 for the House, the year C-SPAN was created, and in 1986 for the Senate) there has been concern that politicians playing to the cameras would change how Congress operated, and not for the better. For the most part, those fears have proved to be overblown. The main change (other than better grooming among 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 names for themselves by giving drawn-out speeches to empty House chambers.
That said, there are already more than enough incentives for members of the House to be show horses rather than workhorses. And giving speeches at least has some value even when the audience is small. But encouraging members of Congress to engage in attention-grabbing antics while camping out on the House floor isn’t in the best interest of democracy.
There are other risks. Will members of both parties be reluctant to even casually chat with lawmakers from the other party for fear they would have to explain it to their supporters back home? Will some viewers see the empty chamber as evidence that lazy politicians are avoiding their responsibilities?
On balance, I would still prefer to invite the cameras in, and let the chips fall where they may. But I’m not a party leader responsible for having members of my conference make a good impression. I expect McCarthy, like past speakers of both parties, wants to leave things as they are.