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House goes virtual: Yoon address showcases chamber’s new VR capability

VR is meant to supplement, not replace, current coverage by C-SPAN broadcasts

Speaker Kevin McCarthy had a virtual reality camera record South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol's address to a joint meeting of Congress in the House chamber.
Speaker Kevin McCarthy had a virtual reality camera record South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol's address to a joint meeting of Congress in the House chamber. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Speaker Kevin McCarthy gave the American public a never-before-seen perspective of the House late last week: South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol’s joint address shown in virtual reality.

It marked the first use of a VR camera in congressional history and offered an “unprecedented view” of the chamber, McCarthy said in a statement. The camera was placed in the middle aisle during the April 27 address, defaulting to a forward-facing view of a member sitting several rows back. But the footage on YouTube offers a 360-degree, interactive experience, allowing viewers to peer around as members sitting in the vicinity of the camera check their phones, take pictures and whisper to their neighbors during the address.

McCarthy and House Republicans ended proxy voting and reopened the Capitol for tours since taking back the House in the 118th Congress. Now, they see the addition of virtual reality as another step in opening Congress to the American people.

VR is meant to supplement, not replace, current coverage. The broadcast from C-SPAN, the nonprofit that televises the goings-on of both the House and Senate, for example, featured a clearer view of Yoon, interspersed with wide-framed shots of the chamber and pans to individual members.

But VR, at the very least, could “provide Americans with a new, expanded look inside the chamber,” a Republican House aide said in response to questions about the new camera.

“Speaker Kevin McCarthy cares about innovation and trying new technologies,” the aide continued, adding that McCarthy “looks forward to exploring future opportunities where the use of VR cameras could be appropriate in the House chamber.”

The Republican aide did not indicate how often the camera might be deployed — if, for instance, it would be used only on special occasions, or more frequently to capture the daily legislative grind.

The House passed a resolution the day before Yoon’s address that specifically authorized the House chief administrative officer to record the April 27 address to provide “a virtual reality experience for educational use by the public,” according to the resolution text.

Any effort to increase the public’s understanding of Congress’ day-to-day operations is a positive step, according to watchdogs and advocates for transparency. But those who have long pushed for broader camera access remain skeptical.

“We’re glad to see the Speaker’s office experimenting with video technology in the House chamber — anything that might make Congress more accessible to the public is a good thing,” C-SPAN Vice President Richard Weinstein said in an email.

“At the same time, we hope the door remains open to discussion with the Speaker to consider our January request to add C-SPAN cameras to the existing House productions during legislative sessions,” he added.

‘This is progress’

C-SPAN’s latest push for expanded access came on the heels of the drawn-out speaker election at the start of the 118th Congress. It took McCarthy 15 ballots to secure the speakership, leaving the House without an active rules package for several days and granting C-SPAN close to free rein to capture the drama of the chamber

C-SPAN’s cameras caught Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., lunging at his colleague Matt Gaetz of Florida after Gaetz’s “Never Kevin” coalition successfully sunk another ballot, and televised Rep. Katie Porter of California conspicuously reading “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck” days before announcing her bid for Senate

Those clips from C-SPAN, which normally broadcasts the official feed from the House Recording Studio, led to praise for the usually unsung network and a bipartisan push for better access.

Gaetz unsuccessfully offered an amendment to the Republican rules package that would’ve allowed C-SPAN cameras to remain on the House floor at all times, and Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., introduced a resolution that would’ve required “continued broadcasting of the full House chamber during legislative business consistent with the broadcasts that occurred on January 3-6, 2023.”

Pocan’s resolution has not been adopted.

The House started offering a live feed of proceedings in 1979, but for more than 15 years, its cameras remained pointed at the rostrum or on anyone giving a speech.

In 1995, Speaker Newt Gingrich changed that by allowing for cutaways that would sometimes capture lawmakers in candid moments. Despite his decision to expand the range of House cameras, Gingrich and subsequent speakers have denied repeated requests from C-SPAN to operate cameras of its own in the chamber. The network renewed its request to McCarthy in January, but to no avail.

Opponents then and now have argued that roaming cameras on the House floor inhibit lawmakers’ ability to negotiate or that cameras contribute to acts of political theater. But proponents argue more transparency is needed. 

Jonathan Bydlak, director of the governance program at the R Street Institute, said the benefits of adding cameras to the chamber outweigh the costs and that the use of the VR camera was a sign of McCarthy’s willingness to modernize Congress.

“Of course, the use of a VR camera — which looks like it will be used selectively and likely infrequently — doesn’t represent a dramatic increase in legislative transparency the same way as increasing independent access, like that of C-SPAN, would, but we should welcome all steps in that direction,” Bydlak said.

Gaetz, who hasn’t shied away from criticizing the speaker in the past, similarly offered measured praise.

“This is progress. It doesn’t provide the dynamism of C-SPAN, but it’s more transparency on the floor of the House than at any other time in history,” he said in a statement.

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