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


One part of Speaker Voting Week that received rave reviews was C-SPAN’s wall-to-wall broadcast, with cameras showing live scenes of lawmakers interacting in the chamber. He usually monitors the cameras that feed C-SPAN and other news outlets while the House is in session. But without a house speaker in place, C-SPAN’s cameras were able to roam and capture all kinds of interesting and entertaining activities.

Things returned to normal this week, with House-run cameras firmly fixed on whoever was speaking, along with the occasional wide shot of the chamber during the vote. But there is some interest in changing that. Five Democrats proposed allowing C-SPAN to control its own House feed. Florida Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz — whose heated spat with Kevin McCarthy and near-fight with Alabama Republican Mike Rogers during the speakership vote was caught 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 US citizen, I am not opposed to allowing C-SPAN to run free. It was interesting to see the expressions on McCarthy’s face last week and watch the Democrats as spectators to the Republican drama.

C-SPAN’s cameras also allowed us to see Congressman-elect George Santos, who was hurt by the truth, sit in isolation earlier in the week and then try to communicate with his fellow Republicans before finally appearing to befriend Georgia Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene. Above all, viewers got to see first-hand some of the drama and hand-wringing over the five days it took to elect a speaker.

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But I won’t be surprised if most Republicans reject the C-SPAN proposal, just as Democrats have done whenever it was their decision. And I can’t say I will blame them.

You wouldn’t lose much if the house cameras were focused on the stands. Most of the time, the traveling cameras reveal only a handful of representatives debating in the front of the hall, while most of the seats in the hall remain empty.

That would be bad for the house. It would be even worse if the members felt compelled by the cameras to come onto the dance floor just to listen 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 exhibition, while Congress in its committees is Congress at work.”

This is still true today. Modern political scientists would add to “boardrooms” what happens in the offices of members and party champions. That is where the real work of legislation and control takes place. Representing Congress also requires hours and hours of conversations with advocacy groups and individual constituents both in Washington and at countless meetings in home districts.

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Ever since television coverage of Congress began (in 1979 for the House of Representatives, the year C-SPAN was founded, and in 1986 for the Senate), there has been concern that politicians playing to the cameras will change how Congress works, and not for the better. . For the most part, these fears turned out to be exaggerated. The main change (other than a better attitude among politicians) has been that a series of House members, from Newt Gingrich in the early days of C-SPAN to former Rep. Louie Gohmert more recently, have made a name for themselves with long-winded speeches. to empty house chambers.(1)

Even so, there are already more than enough incentives for Members of Parliament to be showhorses rather than workhorses. And speaking has at least some value, even if the audience is small. But encouraging members of Congress to engage in attention-grabbing pranks while camped out on the floor is not in the best interests 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 of having to explain it to their supporters at home? Will some viewers see the empty hall as proof that lazy politicians are shirking their responsibilities?

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In general, though, I’d rather invite the cameras and leave the chips where they are. However, I am not a party leader responsible for making a good impression on the members of my conference. I expect McCarthy, like previous speakers of both parties, to leave things as they are.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

• Republicans finally get out of the Fox News Bubble: Joshua Green

• The document that separates Biden and Trump: Jonathan Bernstein

• Republicans in Congress have an ethics problem: Julianna Goldman

(1) Gingrich used these 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 ultimately helped him lead the Republicans in the House of Representatives. Gohmert was less successful as his House career ended in an attempt to defeat Texas Gov. Greg Abbott in the 2022 primary.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial team 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 similar stories are available at bloomberg.com/opinion


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