Two Decades of House Television: For Better or Worse?
Live television coverage of the U.S. House of Representatives, introduced in March 1979, shifted power within the House from leaders to members, and from the majority party to the minority, according to president and founder of C-SPAN, Brian Lamb, and former Representatives Tony Coelho and Robert Walker. They spoke at the Center during a March 19 forum commemorating the twentieth anniversary of television coverage of the House.
Proposals to broadcast House proceedings had been made as early as 1922 but were routinely blocked out of “fear of the unknown,” according to Donald R. Wolfensberger, a long-time House staff member and currently a public policy scholar. Wolfensberger had organized the forum as part of a series on how Congress works.
The driving force behind the 1970s movement that ultimately produced television coverage was “frustration by the Democrats over all the free television time President Nixon was getting to air his Vietnam war policies while Democratic opponents of the war were not being given equal time,” Wolfensberger said. But midway through the process, Democratic leadership interest in the proposal waned. Nevertheless, with Republicans acting as a persistent gadfly and support growing among younger Democratic members as a natural outgrowth of a decade of sunshine reforms, new speaker Tip O’Neill reversed his earlier position and authorized a closed-circuit test of broadcasting in early 1977. Gary Hymel, a close aide to O’Neill, commented that to this day, after much reading and many conversations, he still does not know why O’Neill reversed his opposition to television; Hymel puts it down to “instinct.”
The new medium empowered members to go beyond the leadership, Coelho said, because the leadership did not control the flow of information, a fact quickly grasped by members who had been new to the House in 1974 and 1976 -- the so-called Watergate babies. Many of those members had ambitions to move to the Senate, according to Coelho, and used the technology to advance their careers.
Then in the early 1980s, televised coverage of Congress was key to the strategy of Representative Newt Gingrich, at a time when the Democratic majority in the House seemed secure and Republican leadership was in the hands of an older generation. Gingrich founded the Conservative Opportunity Society in 1983 when “the chair controlled the floor of the House and we were frustrated” by being unable to act, Robert Walker said. The society held a series of meetings to create a focused message, after which its members took advantage of House rules of procedure that allowed them to ask pointed questions during floor debates and to make a series of brief speeches at the beginning and end of every legislative day. All of this had an impact on C-SPAN viewers. As one of the Society's leading speakers, Walker himself became a nationally prominent representative.
“We found that we were powerful on the House floor,” Walker said. The Conservative Opportunity Society members could tell when their message was connecting with people because their staffs would report that their telephones were lighting up. What’s more, their tactics proselytized new supporters. When Conservative Opportunity Society members went to meetings throughout the country, they found hundreds of people who said they were running for office because of them, Walker said -- among them Texas Representatives Richard K. Armey and Tom DeLay, who today are House majority leader and whip, respectively.
These television tactics work best for the minority power, Walker commented, because that party can focus its message. The majority party, in contrast, has to protect the process in order to get its legislative job done, he said, citing Brian Lamb’s comment that interest in openness is inversely proportional to how much control you have over the process.
“Overall I think the introduction of television has been good for Congress and the country in a number of ways,” said former Representative Lee Hamilton, director of the Woodrow Wilson Center. “Most important, it has played a vital role in giving us a more informed citizenry, at least those who pay attention to government, politics, and public affairs. Second, I think it has helped members to become more informed, responsive, and accountable as legislators. And third, it has opened up the legislative process to the American people, showing them in virtual time the strengths and weaknesses of the Congress in session.”
But in Hamilton's view, television tactics have harmed the quality of debate in the House. Members speak less freely, he said, both because of fear of stumbling before a nationwide audience if they depart from prepared remarks, and because of their parties' insistence on keeping them “on message”: “keeping it simple and repeating the same poll-tested phrases on a particular subject over and over again.” Hamilton added that at times, the House floor has seemed "a combat arena, hosting a war of words.”
Other participants, however, pointed out that deals finally shaping legislation have long been made in committees, in the cloakroom, and when members are walking from one place to another. Candy Crowley, who covers Congress for CNN, said that debate in the House was “educational”: “I have the House and Senate floors on TV in my booth, but I am on the phone trying to find out where somebody is. I’d like to have a camera in the cloakroom.”