Keep Cameras in the Congress

Thank you, C-SPAN. Last night at nearly 1 a.m., America finally got its 55th Speaker of the House when Kevin McCarthy won on the 15th ballot in a process that began way back on Tuesday. 


Along the way, we were treated to an important, at times chaotic civics lesson including near-fisticuffs live and on camera.


Friday the fourth day of voting we saw 15 holdouts switch their allegiance during the 12th and 13th rounds of balloting. Then after an adjournment, McCarthy thought he had the needed votes, and at 11 p.m. came the 14th vote. Nevertheless, he ended up one vote shy of a majority. 


For the first time all week, he couldn’t hide being visibly angry. Both Lauren Boebert and Matt Gaetz had voted “Present,” while four other anti-McCarthy holdouts remained steadfast. It was all quite dramatic, and gripping to watch.  


A fistfight nearly broke out as Mike Rogers, the Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, was physically restrained from Gaetz, whose supporters rushed to his side. Obscenities were heard.


It was a stunning reversal because McCarthy thought he had whipped the votes. Then, when it seemed they were going to be adjourning for the weekend, there was more arm-twisting. Suddenly McCarthy was smiling again. 


They undertook a 15th vote. Early on, holdout Andy Biggs changed his vote for another candidate to “Present” and got a standing ovation. Then Rep.-elect Eli Crane changed his vote to present. The calendar turned over from the second anniversary of January 6 to January 7.  In the end, McCarthy had 216 votes, Democrat Hakeem Jeffries maintained his party’s 212 votes, and the last six holdouts all voted “Present.”


The uniqueness of this congressional proceeding is that it was the most protracted speaker election since 1859 and that we got to watch. . .and not just from the usual one camera trained on a lectern. 


During normal house sessions, the cameras are all controlled by a government entity called the House Recording Studio. That footage is then used by networks like CNN, news programs, and C-SPAN.


Many times since cameras were first allowed in 1979, C-SPAN has asked to add its own cameras, and each time, the House denied the request.


However, C-SPAN is allowed to bring in its own cameras during certain high-profile events, and this event not only qualified, but lasted all week. So if you were watching this all go down this week you were watching a feed from C-SPAN.


As a result, as The Washington Post pointed out, we got to see all the sausage being made, or as the post described, “Loud booing. Animated conversations in the aisles of the House Chamber. Sleeping children. Lawmakers scrolling on their phones.”


We looked on as Kevin McCarthy huddled with Jim Jordan, whose name was put forward by some of McCarthy’s detractors.  And even when New York Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez chatted with Arizona Republican Paul Gosar. (Remember, it was Gosar who was censured in 2021 after he shared an animated video on social media that showed him killing AOC.)


And Republican Congressman George Santos, who has already admitted to a series of lies and fabrication,  possibly facing a House ethics investigation just days after being sworn in  sitting by himself.  The members did not want to associate with him as he sat there in his suit and sweater: alone!  


And last night, we saw Gaetz and Boebert huddling, as people tried to sway him. 


These are all things you never would have seen, except this week. So how did this happen?


The House Radio-TV Gallery told The Washington Post that C-SPAN was given permission in advance of the voting for its cameras to visually roam across the chamber, something normally prohibited. 


Unless the speaker permits, C-SPAN access will now again be restricted. That’s not right. 


We should be able to see our representatives working for us at all times, not just when the speaker position is in limbo. That goes for Congress, the courts, and anywhere that a citizen has a right to watch their government in person.


If you can walk in off the street, so too should a camera be able to film. That goes for local township building, city hall, school board meeting, state legislature, courtroom, and the Supreme Court of the United States. . .and without any limitation as to camera angle. Whatever the naked eye can see, so too should cameras at public meetings.


I get the downside. Some will showboat. For those of us who remember, the 1995 O.J. Simpson criminal trial became California’s longest ever because both the judge and many lawyers seemed to relish playing for a national audience.


One can argue that without cameras this week, what took 15 ballots would’ve been resolved much sooner if fewer were watching.  


Many representatives saw this as an opportunity to become household names and fundraising magnets. But in normal sessions, they often don’t want us to see everything.  


I was reminded of this when I spoke to my Sirius-XM colleague Steve Scully who had a 30-year career at C-SPAN. He turned me on to this gem from 1992 when legendary House Speaker Tip O’Neill shared his concerns about cameras with Brian Lamb:


“Lamb:  By the way, you know, one of the things people often miss is they think we control those cameras. The House controls them.  


O’Neill: I never allowed you to control those cameras. Don’t ever change that. 


Lamb: Why? 


O’Neill: Well, you know, some guy would be picking his nose and scratching his fanny on television. It goes on the negative. Always trying to downcast. They’re doing a good job, and the American people like that. I don’t think that they should show full-scale debate with 30 members on the floor or some fella taking a nap, which could happen on occasion. I just don’t think that that is in the best interest of our congress, of our people. And I think that everything’s going alright. Leave it alone.” 


Tip’s concerns notwithstanding, here’s hoping what we just witnessed can continue.   


Ben O’Connell, C-SPAN’s Director of Editorial Operations, told The Washington Post he hopes the network will be allowed to show more to the American people. 


He said, “Those visuals are really speaking to viewers. It’s helping to tell the story of this speaker election. Now, imagine if we were able to do that when there’s a major piece of legislation. I think that it would be far more engaging for the American people, and voters would really be able to see who’s talking to who.”


Of course he’s right.  

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