Webcasting Goes Mainstream Among House Committees

Posted March 6, 2007 at 6:32pm

More House committees than ever before are streaming live video broadcasts of their hearings online, meeting a challenge issued by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

Pelosi, who included a discussion of online video and audio broadcasts — aka “Webcasts” — at Tuesday’s Democratic Caucus meeting, has “called on committees and Members to utilize available technology to make government fully accessible and transparent,” said spokesman Drew Hammill.

While 14 committees have embraced Webcasts, seven others continue to face obstacles, ranging from a lack of equipment to more administrative concerns.

For example, the hearing room for the Veterans’ Affairs Committee has no cameras, prohibiting the panel to reach out to constituents across the country.

“We’re not equipped. We’re never on TV,” said spokeswoman Kristal DeKleer. “I’ve asked the guys a million times, ‘Are we going to be on C-SPAN today?’ The answer’s always ‘no.’”

And while organizations such as C-SPAN regularly cover Congressional proceedings live on television (and, for that matter, often broadcast them online), committees can provide greater access for constituents and interest groups by hosting Webcasts of specific hearings that might not make it to television, officials say.

Individual panels must maintain their own camera equipment and some computer hardware. But the House Administration Committee oversees a Webcasting contract with a private company that lets panels pool their resources to have their hearings aired and archived on their Web sites, said Sterling Spriggs, director of technology for the committee.

The Appropriations, Budget, Education and Labor, Energy and Commerce, Financial Services, Foreign Affairs, Homeland Security, House Administration, Judiciary, Natural Resources, Oversight and Government Reform, Science and Technology, Transportation and Infrastructure, and Ways and Means committees have signed onto the contract, according to Janice Crump, a House Administration spokeswoman.

Digital storage space and bandwidth also are shared between the committees, Spriggs said, pointing to one of the benefits of banding together.

Committees can branch out on their own if they like, Spriggs said, although all House committees that Webcast regularly contract with House Administration.

“Typically, a Web contract will cost you well over $1,000 a month, sometimes $2,000 a month,” Spriggs said. “Committees that sign up under the negotiated contract are paying under $500 a month.”

Webcasting is just one technological method the Democratic leadership hopes to undertake to reach Americans in coming months.

At Tuesday’s Democratic Caucus meeting, political strategist Simon Rosenberg and Peter Leyden, director of the New Politics Institute, gave a presentation focusing on new technologies and new media in politics, Hammill said.

Similar to a talk the pair gave at the Democratic retreat in February, the presentation outlined how Web video, mobile media, social networking, blogs and other rising technological methods could help the Democrats microtarget messages, Hammill added.

Committees should take precautions to make sure Webcasts don’t harm the overall content of their Web site, however.

In its recent Gold Mouse study of legislative Web sites, the Congressional Management Foundation wrote that because most households in the United States do not have a high-speed Internet connection, Web site designers should be very careful about what video and audio makes it online.

Nothing should be automatic, the study urged, because it could significantly slow down loading time for a Web site.

But at the same time, Webcasts could provide a way for committees to reach out to Americans across the country interested in happenings of a particular committee.

The CMF praised the House Budget Committee, for example, for its archiving of audio and video content, as well as for providing transcripts for hearings.

Some of the committees that do not provide streaming video offer audiocasts instead, including the Armed Services Committee.

“It’s just something we’re not at the point of doing yet,” Loren Dealy, a committee spokeswoman, said of video broadcasts. “It is something that we’ve talked about. It is something we’d like to do in the future.”

Ongoing construction and additional administrative matters have prohibited other panels from Webcasting.

An aide for the Agriculture Committee said Chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) is “very interested” in doing Webcasts, but the transition in leadership has delayed the process.

Committee staff is in the middle of taking control of the panel’s Web site, while there’s a more practical hitch that needs to be taken care of.

“The main committee room we have isn’t even being used right now,” the aide said. “It’s being refurbished. … Once we get the main hearing room finished, it’s something we plan to do.”

Then there are those panels, such as the Rules Committee, that choose to broadcast their hearings for specific occasions only.

“Whenever there’s interest in video coverage, we evaluate and try to be [as] amenable to it as possible,” the spokesman said.