During an embarrassing and confusing week inside the House of Representatives over who will be the next speaker, one thing is providing clarity: the cameras.
Television cameras that are typically tightly controlled by the House itself are, for the moment, staffed by C-SPAN journalists, who were allowed into the chamber to cover the voting. That’s why viewers are able to see lawmakers haggling, back-slapping, and gossiping all across the House floor. For news junkies, it’s the best new show of the year, with cliff-hanger endings to episodes and no obvious series finale. And it has proved beyond any doubt that journalists, not government employees, should control the cameras all year round.
This would be a profound change for Congress. “For the normal day-to-day legislative process, we have never been allowed to have our cameras in the chamber,” Ben O’Connell, C-SPAN’s director of editorial operations, told me. Instead, the House’s own TV control room, the House Recording Studio, determines what can be seen. Usually it’s very little: close-ups of speakers on the floor and wide shots of the chamber during votes. Angles that would provide useful context, like reaction shots of lawmakers, are forbidden.
Once in a while, the public’s visual window is cracked open a bit. Independent access is granted for special occasions like the State of the Union address and the speaker’s election. But every time TV executives petition for fuller access they are rebuffed. It’s as if Republican and Democratic leaders want the House to look as stale as possible.
.@RepAOC @AOC casts her vote for @RepJeffries in the third ballot for Speaker of the House and meets the baby of @RepJimmyGomez in the process. #118thCongress pic.twitter.com/Dnem4EYdJ5— CSPAN (@cspan) January 3, 2023
That’s why this week has been such a revelation. C-SPAN’s three camera positions have picked up House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy deep in conversation with his Republican opponents and shown surprising interactions across the aisle. Also Republican Representative Matt Gaetz huddling with a group of Democrats. The C-SPAN angles are shared with other broadcasters and streamers, which is why the House standoff has been like wallpaper across the wider media world.
Like any worthy TV drama, there have been multi-episode story arcs, courtesy of the cameras: fabricator Republican Representative-elect George Santos of New York sitting by himself on the first day of voting, then evidently finding a group of Republican colleagues to socialize with, or at least stand near, on days two and three.
Unless you’re a television producer in need of candid congressional cutaway shots, this might seem like it rarely or barely matters. But consider what the public is usually unable to see: The joint session of Congress on Jan. 6, 2021, was not deemed deserving of independent TV coverage. So when the proceedings were adjourned due to the mob at the doors, the cameras were immediately turned off. Viewers should have been able to see the attack as it happened on the House floor — and the imagery would have made it harder for hard-right media personalities to deny the reality of that day.
This transparency argument extends to everyday activities of Congress. Right now, “you can see who your congressman is speaking with; you can see what negotiations are happening in the aisle or the back of the chamber; and you can see how people are reacting to the speakers,” O’Connell said. That’s what some lawmakers are trying to avoid.
I asked Brendan Buck, who was a counselor to one House speaker, Paul Ryan, and press secretary for another, John Boehner, about why the no-outside-cameras norm has remained in place for decades. “The members have always resisted,” Buck replied during the seventh or eight round of voting. “They don’t want eyes on their every movement, conversation, and facial expression.” Buck said the bigger point, from the lawmakers’ perspective, is that “the House floor is one of the last places where members can come together and have real conversations, including across the aisle.”
That’s what the C-SPAN cameras have illustrated so well this week. Some members fear that if they “have to always be on guard and feel like people are watching, it might break things down further,” Buck said.
But the desire to treat the House as a private workspace is superseded by the very public nature of the job. As a compromise of sorts, congressional leaders should allow a pool of journalists’ cameras for major news events and legislative debates — and the news media should determine what counts as major, not the government.
Brian Stelter, former anchor of CNN’s “Reliable Sources,” is a fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy.