C-SPAN Has Impacted Issues, Late-Afternoon Drinks

Posted March 17, 2004 at 6:36pm

A quarter-century after television cameras first came to the floor of the House of Representatives, veteran lawmakers feel that the cultural phenomenon that goes by the name of C-SPAN has fundamentally changed the very institution of Congress — affecting everything from legislative strategy planning to Members’ drinking habits.

And while that might seem like a drastic amount of influence for an organization that seeks merely to “provide public access to the political process,” Members who have worked in Congress before and after the cameras arrived say that the ever-present eye of the public has dramatically affected the way Congress does its business — and not necessarily always for the better.

“All I would say is that it has its upside and its downside,” said Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.), who admitted that he was skeptical in 1979, and in some ways still is today, about how C-SPAN can affect debates.

“In some ways [C-SPAN] has rewarded grandstanders rather than thoughtful Members,” said Obey. “C-SPAN itself hasn’t done that, but the way the networks pick up the feeds have done that.”

But there are mostly warm feelings about the Cable Satellite Public Affairs Network, which on Friday will celebrate the 25th anniversary of the day in 1979 when then-Rep. Al Gore (D-Tenn.) delivered the first televised speech on the House floor.

Seven years later, mainly in response to the popularity of the House television feed, the Senate passed a resolution to allow C-SPAN into its chamber. And these days, with three C-SPAN networks and 10 Web sites, the world of Capitol Hill is beamed into more than 88 million American homes every day.

But even before that first Gore speech was played on cable networks, many Members were worried that C-SPAN would be detrimental to the democratic process. Although C-SPAN would not be creating partisan conflict, would it amplify it? Would spontaneous, open debates become a thing of the past?

These are questions that Members are still grappling with after a quarter century.

Many Members who voted for the original resolution in 1979 to allow the cameras into the House seem to agree that C-SPAN, above all else, has been overwhelmingly positive for the American public.

“I said it at the time, C-SPAN really helps the American people get a front-row seat to our democratic process — unfiltered, with no editorial comment,” said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who served in the House for five years before the cameras were allowed in and also saw the advent of cameras in the Senate chamber. “It makes for a better-informed public, a better-balanced public.”

Earlier this week, the House unanimously passed a resolution that thanked C-SPAN for its 25 years of service. House Administration Chairman Bob Ney (R-Ohio), who sponsored the resolution, called C-SPAN “an essential tool in our country for fostering civic education and government accountability.”

Harkin noted that before the advent of C-SPAN, people would have no idea what meetings were like. “They’d have a position on something but they never really delved into it and heard perhaps a lot of the other side like they’re hearing now,” he said.

“It brings a human element to constituents,” noted Rep. Robert Matsui (D-Calif.).

But Matsui also said that by bringing the government closer to the people C-SPAN has “also changed the nature of government.”

“There’s no question that Members are acutely aware of the cameras,” he said.

Rep. Jim Leach (R-Iowa) learned that lesson well the very first week that the cameras came into the chamber. He recalled his first run-in with C-SPAN coverage in a recent interview series produced by the network. The series consists of brief interviews — with 20 Members who served in the pre-C-SPAN days who are still in Congress — that will be airing all this month.

In his interview, Leach said that during the first week of camera coverage then-Rep Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.) was speaking on the floor about the need to return to a gold standard.

“I stood up and I thought I was being kind of cute, and as kind of a joke I said, ‘Jack, what we really need is a ‘golden’ standard,’” Leach recalled, referring to a need to depend on American production of corn.

“Anyway, I sat down thinking that was kind of a cute little anecdote for Jack. And all of a sudden, I got a phone call in the back room, in the Cloakroom. And that’s the only time in my time in Congress I’ve ever had such a phone call. And it was from my county chairperson from Washington County, Iowa — very symbolic. And she said to me, ‘Jim, I’ve been watching C-SPAN. This is the first week. You ought to listen more respectfully to that nice man Jack Kemp.’ And I thought to myself, ‘that was a citizen constructive putdown of an elected representative.’

“I’ve often thought that’s my favorite criticism I’ve gotten as a Member,” Leach recalled, “that someone had watched me speak, that instant called me up and said I was dead wrong, and that is democracy.”

On a day-to-day basis, some of the changes that C-SPAN has brought have been benign, and even somewhat humorous.

Members “dress better now,” Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) said with a smile as he stood outside a recent Democratic policy luncheon. “They’re also very careful with their use of the queen’s language.”

Matsui said with a laugh, “You don’t see a lot of the late-day drinking anymore — you always want to be on your best behavior.”

Members have also seen how the television cameras brought legislators a bit more of a celebrity status.

“You’d be surprised how many people watch these committee meetings and stuff on C-SPAN, and they’ll watch the reruns,” said Harkin. “I had my [Democratic presidential campaign] forums out in Iowa this year and people watch these at midnight.”

Television cameras have also brought other, more fundamental, changes — some of which still concern these Members who began serving in the pre-C-SPAN days.

“We have less off-the-cuff debate,” said Harkin, but he added that much of that is the result of the crunch for time and the way Congress does its business these days.

Obey noted that television networks, in an attempt to get an interesting sound bite, often “feed off the spectacular rather than the thoughtful” and cover politics as entertainment rather than as hard news. He said that in this way C-SPAN can be misused.

“Count how many times [former Rep] Jim Traficant’s [D-Ohio] comments were carried by network news and compare that to the amount of times he actually contributed to debate,” said Obey. “You can learn a lot if you watch what happens on C-SPAN, but you don’t learn a hell of a lot by watching Traficant say ‘beam me up.’”

And while Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.) called C-SPAN a “super positive” — especially for the status of the House — he also admits that one of his more vivid, and also humorous, encounters with C-SPAN involves the networks picking up on an embarrassing incident that occurred on the House floor.

One year, when legendary Rep. Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.) was serving as Speaker, Dicks made a floor speech on the Speaker’s birthday.

That day, Dicks happened to be the next in line to speak when a fellow Member on the other side of the aisle suggested that then-Minority Leader Bob Michel (R-Ill.) sing “Happy Birthday” to O’Neill.

But Dicks moved to the podium to begin his prepared remarks on arms control and was met by boos from his Republican colleagues. A bit shaken, Dicks decided to break into song. He led the entire chamber that day in a rendition of the traditional birthday song.

That same night, the networks jumped on the C-SPAN sound bite — an image so vivid that Dicks recalls one NBC reporter opening his news segment by saying, “Remember this young man’s face, because you’ll never forget his voice.”

Another change Members feel C-SPAN has brought to Congress is that it has helped to emphasize previously minor parts of the legislative process.

Like Traficant’s now-famous — or infamous — one-minute speeches, brief and catchy presentations on the House floor are some of the more popular part of C-SPAN’s programming. Knowing this, the camera can become more than just an eye on Congress, but a tool of Members.

“There’s more speeches, more special orders,” said Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio). “It provides a platform.

“Newt used it very effectively to contribute to the Republican revolution,” added Regula in reference to then-House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich’s (R-Ga.) strategy of bringing his party’s conservative message — which led to the GOP’s historic takeover of Congress in 1994.

Regula, who said he feels that C-SPAN has been a positive force in framing issues for the public, also pointed out that with the advent of C-SPAN3 and recent movements to expand coverage beyond the House and Senate floor, “committee coverage is already the next big thing.”

“The coverage of the committees actually is the biggest plus,” Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said in his C-SPAN interview, “because that’s where a lot of the intellectual and subsidy work goes on, experts that give testimony, Senators or Congressmen actually asking questions, quite often thoughtful questions. And I think some members are somewhat oblivious to the cameras being there. If you’re really into the issue, it just kind of gets to be a part of the furniture.”

And that expanded coverage, or as C-SPAN Executive Vice President Susan Swain calls it “deeper coverage,” is something C-SPAN has made clear it hopes to continue in the next quarter-century.

“It’s hard to broaden our coverage, what we want to do is deepen our coverage,” said Swain, who has been with C-SPAN for 22 years. “The next generation is to merge data and the television camera,” she said, explaining how the network hopes to incorporate the Internet and new technology to bring more content to viewers.

While there’s no doubt that C-SPAN has re-shaped the way Congress does its job, Members also overwhelmingly agree that one other thing C-SPAN provides is compelling images that explain the democratic process like no other medium can.

“The prescription drug bill or the all-night session or when [Ways and Means Chairman] Bill Thomas [R-Calif.] gave a tearful apology — that would have been hard to capture in just a news story,” Matsui said.