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House lawmakers call for a freer C-SPAN. But is that what they actually want?

Televised speaker fight renews decades-old debate

Rep. Matt Gaetz exchanges tense words with Kevin McCarthy on Friday during another ballot for House speaker.
Rep. Matt Gaetz exchanges tense words with Kevin McCarthy on Friday during another ballot for House speaker. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

There were no rules in the House chamber last week, and C-SPAN made the most of it. 

Republicans’ multiday ordeal to select a speaker of the House — Kevin McCarthy ultimately won early Saturday morning, on the 15th ballot — left the chamber without an active rules package.

For C-SPAN, the nonprofit cable network that normally relies on a live feed provided by House officials, that meant their own camera operators had free rein to capture the drama — including an irate Mike Rogers, a GOP representative from Alabama, lunging at colleague Matt Gaetz of Florida after his “Never Kevin” coalition scuttled yet another ballot.

The rare view of the chamber made for compelling television and was reflected in C-SPAN’s ratings. On the first day of the new Congress, 379,000 households tuned in, up 161 percent over the opening day of the previous Congress, according to an estimate from Samba TV, a firm that tracks what people watch on smart TVs.

It also brought the often unsung network a heap of praise and has spurred efforts from both Republicans and Democrats to allow wider video coverage of the floor, reigniting a decades-old debate.

“Last week, America watched in real time how our government is functioning,” Gaetz tweeted Tuesday, after announcing on Fox News his plans to introduce an amendment to the Republican rules package that would allow C-SPAN cameras to remain on the House floor at all times. 

“Broader transparency in Congress is a net positive, and we need more of it,” Gaetz added.

Gaetz’s amendment comes on the heels of a proposal by Wisconsin Democrat Mark Pocan to expand the view of the 118th Congress.

“Last week’s @CSPAN coverage was worthy of an Oscar,” Pocan tweeted Monday. “That’s why I’m introducing legislation requiring House cameras to continue to capture the full Chamber & not just what the Speaker wants.”

The resolution, which Pocan expects to introduce later this week, would “require continued broadcasting of the full House chamber during legislative business consistent with the broadcasts that occurred on January 3-6, 2023.” But it wouldn’t give C-SPAN exclusive access, an aide said.

Democratic Reps. Maxwell Frost of Florida, Mark Takano of California, Nydia Velazquez of New York and Donald Payne of New Jersey are co-sponsoring the measure.

“This is a small but important step towards transparency and accountability in our government,” Frost tweeted Monday.

But do lawmakers actually want everyone at home to see their unscripted moments? For the most part, cameras have avoided candid moments on the floor ever since the House started offering a live feed of proceedings in 1979. Instead, they remain pointed at the rostrum or anyone giving a speech. 

Nose-pickers and gossipers could do their business in the aisles unobserved. And if the chamber was almost completely empty while an amped-up lawmaker gave a made-for-TV speech, viewers were none the wiser.

When then-Speaker Newt Gingrich switched things up in 1995, roughly 30 House Republicans sent a letter of protest. They didn’t like it when camera operators took cutaway shots or broader sweeps of the chamber. 

Opponents have also argued that freely roaming cameras would limit lawmakers’ ability to negotiate before tough votes or give members an even greater incentive to perform.

Jonathan Bydlak, director of the Fiscal and Budget Policy Project at the R Street Institute, pointed to Rep. Katie Porter of California, who amid the speaker madness went viral for conspicuously reading “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck” days before announcing her bid for Senate. But the benefits outweigh the potential costs, Bydlak said.

“There’s clearly an audience and an appetite for that kind of transparency,” Bydlak said. “For people who say that the general public isn’t interested in what their government is doing, I think you need only watch what happened last week to see that that’s clearly not true. … And I think it’s certainly plausible that more Americans would be more engaged with what’s happening if they had a little more insight than they do currently.”

Over the years, C-SPAN has continued to broadcast the official feed provided by the House Recording Studio while pushing for cameras of its own.

“It’s time for Congress to take the next step — allow C-SPAN cameras into the chamber and … expand what American citizens can see of their national legislature,” the network’s chief executive urged. 

That letter could have been written this week, but it actually dates back to 1994, as Gingrich was preparing to claim the speaker’s gavel.

The cameras controlled by the House offer only “a restricted view of the floor,” complained then-CEO Brian Lamb. And many Americans had no idea what they were watching. 

“They don’t know that the cameras in the chamber are controlled by government employees using procedures established by the speaker’s office,” Lamb wrote.

“Help end the confusion” and allow C-SPAN to broadcast from the chamber, Lamb pleaded. But Gingrich didn’t go for it, and neither did any of his successors. The House retained its tight grip on the cameras through the eras of Dennis Hastert, John Boehner and Nancy Pelosi.

On Tuesday, C-SPAN renewed its plea for greater access, citing the success of its speaker coverage. 

“The public, press and member reaction to C-SPAN’s coverage — along with the ‘transparency’ themes in your new rules package — have encouraged us to resubmit a request we have made to your predecessors without success: Allow C-SPAN to cover House floor proceedings on behalf of our network and all congressionally-accredited news organizations,” co-CEO Susan Swain said in a letter to McCarthy.

The letter requests permission to install “a few additional cameras in the House chamber” that would supplement the existing House recording system to “create a second, journalistic product, just as we did last week.”

Jim Saksa contributed to this report.

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