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

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Part of Speaker Vote Week is C-SPAN’s wall-to-wall coverage, with cameras showing live footage of lawmakers interacting on the House floor. Normally, it controls the cameras that feed C-SPAN and other news outlets when the House is in session. But without a speaker to set the House rules, C-SPAN’s cameras were able to capture all kinds of interesting and entertaining activities.

It’s back to normal this week, with the House-run cameras firmly fixed on who’s speaking, along 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 near-mess with Alabama Republican Mike Rogers during the speaker vote was captured by the nonprofit cable network — also supports the idea.

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

C-SPAN cameras allowed us to see newly elected, truth-impaired Congressman Jorge Santos sitting in isolation earlier in the week and then trying to communicate with his fellow Republicans before finally befriending Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Green. And best of all, viewers saw firsthand some of the drama and arm-twisting during the five days it took to select a speaker.

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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 it’s their decision. And I can’t say I blame them.

We don’t lose much to focus the house cameras on the stage. Most of the time, roving cameras reveal little beyond a handful of delegates engaged in debate at the front of the chamber while most of the seats on the floor are empty.

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

That is still true today. Modern political scientists add to the “committee rooms” what goes on in the offices of members and party leaders. That’s where the real lawmaking and oversight work happens. Congressional representation requires hours and hours of conversations with advocacy groups and individual constituents in countless meetings both in Washington and in home districts.

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Since televised coverage of Congress began (for the House in 1979, the year C-SPAN was created, and for the Senate in 1986), there has been concern that politicians playing to the cameras will change how Congress works, if not for the better. . For the most part, those fears have proven to be overblown. The major change (other than better grooming among politicians) is that in C-SPAN’s early days a series of House lawmakers, from Newt Gingrich to former Rep. Louie Gohmert, made a name for themselves by giving drawn-out speeches. For vacant house rooms.(1)

That said, there are already plenty of incentives for House members to be show horses rather than workhorses. And giving speeches has some value, even if the audience is small. But encouraging members of Congress to engage in attention-seeking behavior while camping out on the House floor is not in the best interest of democracy.

There are other risks. Do members of both parties hesitate to casually chat with legislators of the other party? Do some observers see an empty chamber as lazy politicians shirking their responsibilities?

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On balance, I still prefer to invite the cameras and let the chips fall where they may. But I am not a party leader to make a good impression on my conference members. I expect McCarthy, like previous 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

• Document separating Biden and Trump: Jonathan Bernstein

• Republicans in Congress have an ethics problem: Juliana Goldman

(1) Gingrich used those speeches, in which Speaker Tip O’Neill ordered House cameras to reveal that Gingrich was speaking in an empty chamber, to draw attention to what he ultimately helped lead House Republicans. Gohmert was less successful, with his House career ending 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 the blog A Plain About Politics.

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


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