C-SPAN denied cameras in the House of Representatives, again

By Rachel Weiner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 4, 2011; 9:44 PM

Seizing on Republicans' calls for more transparency in the health-care debate, C-SPAN in November asked presumptive incoming Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) if it could bring cameras onto the House floor. The response has just come back: Sorry, but no.

"I believe the American people - and the dignity and decorum of the United States House of Representatives - are best served by the current system of televised proceedings provided by the House Recording Studio," Boehner wrote to C-SPAN Chairman Brian Lamb.

C-SPAN has been making similar requests since 1994. It seems unlikely to succeed anytime soon.

Fighting over camera angles goes back to 1984.

C-SPAN broadcasts the video feed from the House, but it doesn't get to bring in its camera equipment, which means it has no control over what is shown.

In 1984, members of the Conservative Opportunity Society, a group of aggressive young House Republicans led by Newt Gingrich (Ga.), had begun using C-SPAN-televised floor speeches to get their message out to the public.

What the public didn't know was that most of the time, no one was listening - the speeches were given when legislative business was over and the majority of members had gone home. In accordance with House rules, the camera showed only the person speaking and not the empty chamber that he or she was speaking to.

Annoyed by a speech in which Gingrich accused several apparently silent (in reality, absent) Democrats of being "blind to communism," Speaker Tip O'Neill (D-Mass.) decided to take revenge. Without warning Republicans, he ordered the cameras to pan the chamber while a member of the COS was speaking, to show the empty room. Angry Republicans labeled the maneuver "Camscam."

The ensuing fight only raised Gingrich's profile. ("I am now a famous person," he crowed.) So the wide-angle shots stayed until 1994, when Republicans and Democrats agreed to go back to only close-ups in the hope of making Congress look more dignified.

Also that year, C-SPAN, trying to compete with other networks for viewers, asked if it could bring in its own cameras. Incoming Speaker Gingrich declined. His successor, Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), also did not allow C-SPAN's cameras in the chamber. In 2006, incoming Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) followed suit.

Boehner is allowing expanded television access. He's willing to let TV reporters into the chamber for special events and high-profile debates on a case-by-case basis, and he will let them have "stakeout" locations in heavily trafficked parts of the Capitol. But he drew the line at C-SPAN's request.

"We're disappointed to learn that despite 32 years of experience with televising its sessions and in an age of ubiquitous cameras in political life, the House of Representatives has chosen not to allow C-SPAN's cameras into its chamber to cover its sessions," C-SPAN said in response to Boehner's refusal.

"We continue to feel that the public is best served by seeing a more complete picture of the legislative process than what's delivered by Congressionally-controlled cameras and will continue to work with Speaker Boehner and other leaders in the House in hope of one day gaining access on behalf of the media."

But Boehner is just following in a long tradition. Defiant speeches given to abandoned rooms are still a popular hobby for lawmakers. And the cameras stay put.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company