At the time
this article was written Harry Grundy was a visiting research fellow at the
Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent at
Cantebury, UK. This is a revised version of a paper delivered at the 1999
American Political Science Association meeting in Altanta.
It is now more than twenty
years since the United States House of Representatives began televising its
daily proceedings in March 1979. The Senate followed in 1986. This article
looks at some of the effects television has had on legislative proceedings.
Over the last several decades,
Congress has evolved from a public institution protective of its privacy to one
that has welcomed the public to view its proceedings. Television cameras have
allowed viewers the opportunity to watch their congressman at work and to see
democracy in action. The cameras have also allowed members to bask in the
light of publicity and play to the camera – a necessary evil in this age of
electronic politics. During the debates on televising the Senate, J.
Bennett Johnston, an opponent of the cameras, accurately, if somewhat
sarcastically, described the marriage of today’s politician with television:
There is no rush, there is no
feeling, there is no sensation quite like appearing on national television
because to get that feeling and say the message to the whole Nation is an
elixir, an opiate, a drug more powerful than most anything in the Nation.
Indeed, each Member of this body, when he or she has a chance to sup or
drink from that cup of beta endorphin called national TV will rush to the
occasion and drink to the full.1
Familiarity may breed contempt
but in the case of Congress two decades of televising its proceedings has led
to a better understanding of both the institution and the legislative process.
The dire predictions by opponents that viewers’ interest would wane have
never materialized. Currently, C-SPAN is available to over 75 million
households in America while C-SPAN II is available to slightly over 50 million
households. Though their ratings are low compared to other cable
channels, there is a dedicated audience of viewers that participate in call-in
programs, watch various congressional hearings and stay informed as to the
issues of the day. In many ways, ratings and audience figures cannot
fully measure the importance of having cameras inside a legislative body.
Yet, at the same time, the camera’s supporters cannot claim total victory
in terms of the public’s opinion towards their institution. Doubters
remain as to the camera’s effectiveness in presenting the activities of
Congress to the people.
Before television the maxim of
the House was: “in order to get along, you must go along.” Personal
contact between members was encouraged. Junior members deferred not only
to senior members but to committee and subcommittee chairmen as well. It
was a common occurrence for many freshman members “to be seen and not heard”
either on the floor or in committee. Leaders of both houses would often
tell new members to use their first years in Congress to observe the process,
learn the intricacies of committee work and, most importantly, vote the party
Inevitably, having cameras in
the chamber affected not only the member’s participation in debates but has, to
some extent, altered the standard of procedure. A prime example can be
found in the practice of one-minute and special order speeches.
One-minute speeches occur at the beginning of each legislative day and
entitles members to speak on any subject. These opening speeches are, in
many ways, a made-for-television event. A study by the Congressional
Research Service stated that today’s technology permits members to use
one-minute speeches as a visual press release. Members can plan to
address a subject of particular interest to their constituents and have the
videotape sent back to local news stations for airing. Many members have made
one-minute speeches a regular part of their press operations because of their
short length, the lack of restriction on their content, and their normal occurrence
at the beginning of the day, which allows for transmittal home in time for the
evening news broadcasts.2
Similar findings were reached in
the study of special order speeches. Special orders allow members the
opportunity to speak on any topic for up to 60 minutes once the House’s
legislative business has concluded. In some cases, more than one member
may participate by sharing their reserved time with others and yielding
periodically for questions or comments. This “colloquy” is often arranged
in advance of the special order speech.3
A study of the first
month-and-a-half of the televised Senate proceedings showed that there was a
250% increase in the number of special order speeches compared to the same time
period in the previous two Congresses. Likewise, the total amount of
floor time devoted to these speeches nearly doubled from the time in both 1984
and 1982. However, the average time for these speeches was halved from 12
minutes to nearly 6 minutes due to the change in time, from 15 minutes to 5
minutes, allotted to each senator.4 In the House there was an
increase in the number of one-minute speeches. For many members whose schedule
is full of appointments and committee hearings, it is their one opportunity
each day to come to the floor and speak on the topic of the day or of an issue
relating to their constituents. Cynics, no doubt, would call this
political opportunism or an indirect way to campaign but these opening sessions
are there for all members to take advantage of. Some members have
become media celebrities by appearing in the well of the House or Senate on a
regular basis. It may be the one time during the transaction of
congressional business where members, directly or indirectly, play to the
Attendance patterns have also changed
due to availability of C-SPAN in every members office. Members not only monitor
the floor debates but they can gauge when it is the best time to come to the
floor either to vote or make a speech. Thanks to their own office
monitors, members today are also better informed as to the daily schedule of
events and what is specifically occurring on the floor. A consequence of
this in-house system is the fact that members are less reliant on their whips
for information on pending legislation and when to go to the chamber and vote.
Senator Byrd once noted that since the inclusion of cameras “debate has
improved from a substantive standpoint” and that senators “are making better
speeches.”5 This stands to reason since viewers are judging
members on substance as well as appearance. The cameras have become a
window on both the debating process and of the performance of members.
Members must be seen as having done their homework while participating in
a debate. The risk of being perceived as unprepared could damage one’s
reputation with colleagues and voters.
Opponents of televised
proceedings believed that the presence of cameras would result in members
grandstanding and resorting to theatrics once they were in front of the lens.
This has long been the defense of those unwilling to allow cameras into
the legislative arena. It is a defense built not on their ignorance of
the power of television but more on the worry that the internal workings of the
chamber would be affected.
The floor of both the House and
Senate has never resembled a three-ring circus, much to the disappointment of
those who saw the cameras as representing an end to civilised debate and
behavior. Confrontation has clearly been the exception and not the rule. In
the Senate, debate has at times been emotional – such as the vote to deploy
troops in the Persian Gulf or the Supreme Court nominations of Robert Bork and
Clarence Thomas – but never what can be described as confrontational.
There have been occasions when some members have come to the floor either
wearing a pig’s nose to symbolize pork barrel politics or waving a checkbook
during the House banking scandal. But, for the most part, the cameras
have acted as a deterrent against unruly or outrageous behavior with members
knowing that their actions are being watched by the public and by news
While grandstanding may be at a
minimum, partisan rhetoric is at a premium. On the floor of the House or
Senate and in the committee rooms, wherever the cameras are present partisan
rancor seems to follow. Partisan rhetoric and rancor was there for the
cameras to record during the recent impeachment proceedings against President
Clinton. Both the House Judiciary Committee proceedings and the House
floor debate became, in the end, partisan debating chambers. Many analysts
believed that the public’s support for President Clinton and the desire to see
the impeachment proceedings end was due, in large part, to the partisan dynamic
of the debate they were witnessing thanks to television.
The art of political compromise
and comity has given way to bickering and dilatory tactics. It is not
uncommon to watch morning speeches in either chamber and be treated to
Republicans criticizing the Democratic president while Democrats criticize the
content and pace of legislation offered by the Republican leadership. A
very noticeable case of role reversal from the Congress of the early 1980s when
congressional television was in its infancy!
Another result of televised proceedings has been the
inevitable recognition factor that comes with appearing in front of the
Several members have become
media stars - their political careers formed and, in some cases, ended by the
cameras. Perhaps no other member of Congress owed his rise in power more
to the televised proceedings than Newt Gingrich. He used the televised House
proceedings and, specifically, special orders, to further both his career and
his conservative brand of politics. His effective use of the media led to
his election as House majority whip in 1989. By 1994, with the
Republicans winning control of the House for the first time since 1954, Mr.
Gingrich became Speaker. In an ironic twist, television which so ably
assisted him in his rise to power, also hastened his downfall. As
Speaker, Gingrich was on television too much according to several viewer
surveys. He was the symbolic leader of his party and, as such, paid a
heavy price in the opinion polls over his handling of the government shutdown
in 1995. The unexpected loss of seats in the 1998 midterm elections –
results that further reduced an already thin Republican majority – along with
his already low public opinion ratings, prompted his resigning first as Speaker
and then later from Congress.
Others have been more fortunate.
Trent Lott gained leadership positions in the House before moving on to
the Senate and becoming majority leader. Dick Armey and Tom De Lay have
used the televised House proceedings to their advantage in their rise up the current
House leadership ladder. Robert Walker and Robert Donan were frequent
participants in special order sessions and became media celebrities.
Republicans were not the only
ones to take advantage of the cameras presence. Al Gore, the first member
to speak during the televised proceedings of both the House and Senate, used
his familiarity with the media to great advantage in becoming Bill Clinton’s
vice president. After the Democrats recaptured the Senate in 1986, George
Mitchell’s election as majority leader was due, in large part, to the belief
among his colleagues that Mitchell would be an articulate party spokesman and
debator in a chamber that was newly equipped with television cameras.
Robert Byrd, whom Mitchell replaced, was not viewed as someone either
comfortable in front of the cameras or photogenic enough to be a party
spokesman. Tom Daschle, the current minority leader, is seen by his
colleagues as being a good performer in Senate debates – offering a
counterbalance to Trent Lott – as well as an articulate party spokesman.
When voting occurred on the
televising of both the House and Senate, those who supported allowing the
cameras in the chambers reasoned that the time was not only right for their
inclusion but that allowing the cameras in would also improve the image of
Congress. While the cameras have provided an invaluable window to the
workings of each chamber, the overall public perception of Congress
remains rather low. This is not the fault of C-SPAN nor of the cameras.
The cameras are there to provide insight into the legislative process.
However, the view provided may not appeal to all concerned. It may
be that over the last two decades of congressional television viewers have
developed a contempt for the institution. Simply providing live
gavel-to-gavel coverage of Congress is not enough to fully satisfy the public‘s
desire for an efficient and accountable system of government. However,
when viewing these proceedings, we have to realize that we are seeing the
Congress ‘warts and all’. To their credit, lawmakers never fully
attempted to mask the rather archaic and tedious procedure that occurs daily in
the Congress. It is to the credit of these congressional modernists and
realists that the public should see their government in action – without any
alteration to the rules or procedure. The proceedings may not be lovely
or entirely stimulating to watch but it is there for the public to watch – from
a mundane quorum call to the voting on a cabinet or Supreme Court nominee.
With television the primary
means by which political information is obtained, it was inevitable that
Congress would televise its legislative sessions. It was also inevitable
that the cameras would remain since no legislature has ever voted to remove them
once they have been installed. It is just as well the cameras have
remained for without the opportunity to view the proceedings of Congress we,
the public, could never fully appreciate the legislative process.
1. Stephen Frantzich and John
Sullivan, The C-SPAN Revolution (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma
Press, 1996) p. 64.
2. Ilona Nickles, “One-Minute
Speeches: House Practice and Procedure,” Report 90-47 GOV, Congressional
Research Service, January 19, 1990, p. 3.
3. See Ilona Nickles, “Special
Order Speeches in the House of Representatives, “ Report 93-578 GOV,
Congressional Research Service, June 9, 1993, p.2.
4. Congressional Record,
February 4, 1986, p. s929.
5. Paul Rundquist and Ilona
Nickles, “Senate Television: Its Impact on Senate Floor Proceedings,”
Congressional Research Service, July 21, 1986, pp. 25-26.