Television will not go gently into the United States Senate, but the day will come. Yesterday, Sen. Howard Baker (R-Tenn.), the majority leader, told colleagues he will call up his resolution permitting TV coverage of the Senate in January, when Congress returns from its holiday recess.
Earlier, Baker sat in his Capitol Hill office and said he believes he will have the votes to break down the barriers that now keep TV cameras out. He's been fighting for this for some time; indeed, the House has had television cameras since early 1979.
"Well the Senate has always been a little more cautious about internal changes," says Baker, by way of explaining the Senate's lagging behind the House. "But increasingly, I hear comments about how favorably House television is being received throughout the country on cable systems. I had one senator come up to me the other day just in a real tizzy. He said, 'You know, while I was home, the principal question I got was, why didn't we see you on the floor during debate on the tax bill?' And he had to go to some lengths to explain that they only have television in the House.
"Well right there I knew I had a convert."
Baker is selling the Senate on television not only by appealing to his colleagues' deep interest in public enlightenment (cough, cough) but also by reminding them that it is in the Senate's own best interest. Though the Senate likes to think of itself as upstairs to the House's downstairs, Baker thinks the Senate's reputation may suffer if the House gets all the sunshine.
"If we don't do it, if we don't open up the Senate to radio and television," he says, "I predict that in a few years, 10 years at the most, that in the public mind, at least, the House will be the dominant branch of the two."
In addition to the clips of House proceedings that show up on TV newscasts, a potential audience of 10 million homes can watch full-length floor deliberations beamed by satellite to 1,200 cable systems by C-SPAN, a nonprofit corporation funded by the cable TV industry. Do people actually watch the House on TV? "They really do," says Baker. "And it bugs a lot of senators, too.
"There's a lot more interest in this than I thought there would be. I get a lot of questions about it. I get frequent queries from private citizens about 'When are you going to get that television that you spoke of?'
"I think the Supreme Court ought to be open, too. Warren Burger'll kill me. But that's all right. That's what I think. I think the arguments should be open." Baker says the Constitution calls for open public access, and this has usually been interpreted as meaning the House and Senate galleries. Television makes it possible, he says, to extend that gallery to include the whole country. "Where is the logic that says it should be limited to 400 people?"
When both the House and Senate are on television, will each be watching its ratings the way ABC, CBS and NBC do? A Tennessee smile. "Sure, that is not unknown to politics. I expect that we pay more attention to our ratings here -- except that we express them as public opinion polls or our constituent mail service and the like -- than any other group in America."
Baker is aware of adamant opposition. When the question gets to the floor, he says, "undoubtedly we'll have a filibuster." The senator considered most likely to wage that filibuster is Russell Long (D-La.); asked if this were his plan, a spokesman for Long said yesterday, "He's not going to rule anything out."
Long spoke at length of his objections in hearings before the Senate's Committee on Rules and Administration in April. He said TV in the Senate would be "a very bad mistake," partly because "the greatest surplus commodity we have in Congress are speeches that do not need to be made," and the presence of TV cameras would lead to "a lot more conversation out there on the Senate floor than necessary." With TV's big eye open on the Senate, "every senator is a prima donna in one degree or another," Long said.
Senators will scramble to be in front of the cameras because otherwise "folks back home will ask, 'Why don't we see more of our senator on TV?' "
But Baker dismisses the possibility of rampant hamminess and says that in the House, since TV arrived, there has been "less than some expected. I can't recall a single person who serves in the House who's expressed regret about House television coverage." Long and other senators opposing the measure have also pointed to its cost -- $3 million to $5 million, according to Baker. But he says this is not a serious obstacle.
It is likely that the Senate will choose to run its own television system, as the House has, rather than letting outsiders in. It would probably take nine months to wire the Senate for TV, partly because expensive pan-and-tilt devices for the remote-controlled cameras have to be custom-built in Europe. House members come to the front of the chamber to talk, but senators are supposed to stay at their desks. This makes the business of televising them slightly more complicated than it is in the House.
Brian Lamb, the industrious president of C-SPAN, says that since C-SPAN now has access to only one satellite transponder, it could not carry simultaneous sessions of the Senate and House, but that one could be taped and shown later. That means that although one would have the advantage of being live, the other would have the advantage of being in (ta-daah!) prime time. So that soon enough either members of the House or Senate would find themselves being labeled "The Not-Ready-for-Prime-Time Players."
"The decision on what to run live or tape is ours," says Lamb. "We would try to figure out a solution that makes some sense." C-SPAN is about to undergo major expansion in January -- from eight hours a day, five days a week, to 16 hours a day, seven days a week, with the hope of going 24 hours with public affairs programming by the middle of the year. But there won't be another transponder available until Satcom IV goes up in June of 1983. Maybe the House and the Senate will each have to get an agent.
Of course there are loftier aspects to this inevitable revolution. "One of the things I really feel very keenly about is the historical importance of it," says Baker, the most powerful and respected man in the Senate. "It is just ridiculous in my judgment to let these debates, the resolution of these issues that we're dealing with, go recorded only in the Congressional Record. It's sort of like forbidding Mathew Brady from taking pictures during the Civil War. And one of the provisions of this resolution is that an original tape be kept on deposit with the Library of Congress. Forever."
Baker says he is "totally committed" to letting television into the Senate -- indeed, it's a little too late to stop television from going almost anywhere -- but the debate on the resolution will be available to Americans only through eyewitness reports and sketches on the evening news. After that, though, those who do all those artist's renderings will have to move on to some other subject. Television is coming to the Senate, one way or another.