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Cameras and Congress

kainecamera.JPGWith C-SPAN calling for full access to all health-care negotiations, former congressional staffer Pete Davis reflects on how the body changed when C-SPAN first entered the chamber:

Tip O’Neill launched internal live television of the House floor using House camera crews in March, 1977, and two years later gave the public access through C-SPAN. The Senate followed in 1986 using its own camera crews. Up until then, only select hearings had been televised to riveted national audiences: the Senate organized crime hearings and Senator Joe McCarthy’s communist witch hunt hearings in the 1950s and the 1973 and 1974 Watergate hearings. The Museum of Broadcast Communications in Chicago has a concise history. Over time, most hearings and mark-ups were televised and even some conference committees. We staff got used to having the backs of our heads on TV, and we cracked jokes about those staff who seemed to cross behind the chair too many times just to be seen from the front. I also started attending more meetings behind closed doors to reach agreements that would be reenacted before the cameras the next day. It’s a lot more work to do everything twice, and sometimes the reenactment on camera didn’t go according to the script, so the chair would hastily recess to repair the damage.

At the end of the post, Davis weighs in against granting C-SPAN even more access. It may be a "futile plea," he says, but "human beings need interaction to try out ideas and to gauge support without being crucified for trying something that wasn’t adopted anyway. The more scrutiny beyond a reasonable amount, the less useful business gets done."

Photo credit: Robert A. Reeder/The Washington Post.

By Ezra Klein  |  January 8, 2010; 1:00 PM ET
Categories:  Congress  
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"The more scrutiny beyond a reasonable amount, the less useful business gets done."

One can certainly argue the "useful" adjective.

More importantly, if our employees have a problem doing our work while being watched perhaps they should find a new job or be under suspicion for not doing work that is beneficial to us, their employers.

Posted by: spamsux1 | January 8, 2010 2:16 PM | Report abuse

C-SPAN is stupid.

Does anyone really think that Congresspeople govern more effectively when they have to worry that everything they say is subject to being chopped up into a 20 second out-of-context Fox News/MSNBC clip?

For what it's worth, "spamsux1" actually makes a good point -- though it's the opposite of the one he's arguing. Nobody takes risks or steps even a little out of line in a job where they're being constantly watched. I want my representatives to be EFFECTIVE -- even if they have to be unorthodox, rude, or otherwise non-photogenic to be successful.

Posted by: NS12345 | January 8, 2010 2:50 PM | Report abuse

Cameras in the House and Senate chambers, fine. There's a lot of procedural stuff that goes on, and it can be educational to watch. But as far as cameras being where the real work goes on, bad idea. The real work would just move. As the Davis quote shows, and as Ezra alluded to the other night, what you would see on camera would simply be theater.

With negotiations, especially potentially contraversial ones, there is kind of an "Observer Effect". They, and the participants' actions, change when people are watching. And almost always to the detriment of the process.

Posted by: ScottKP | January 8, 2010 3:22 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, are you moving closer to opposing cameras in Congress? We've always known that most of what happens on TV is theater. But I think cameras are important because, even when it is scripted, you at least get a sense of what direction these guys are going in. It also provides a platform for disagreement and debate within the context of Congress' actions (as opposed to everything being done without cameras and then someone going on TV to disagree with policy or process).

Davis says, "The more scrutiny beyond a reasonable amount, the less useful business gets done." Fine. But are we even at a "reasonable amount" with this non-conference conference approach? We have no transparency and no idea what is being debated and compromised on, beyond what leaks out. We deserve to have some lens into the House-Senate negotiations. No one is asking for cameras in Harry Reid or Nancy Pelosi's office as they hammer out details. But would it hurt to force these guys to hash out some of these discussions in front of cameras? Maybe they'll be scripted, maybe they'll hold their cards close to their chest, but at minimum they are forced to show us what is happening. And I argue that is a good thing on balance.

Posted by: gocowboys | January 8, 2010 4:12 PM | Report abuse

Cameras or not, what happens on the floor of the Senate and the House will still be a show (in a age of 24/7 media and with a judicial system that still relies on the congressional record to interpret legislation).

Supreme Court oral arguments are not televised, but they are still largely a show.

Posted by: Levijohn | January 9, 2010 10:58 PM | Report abuse

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