When Americans turn on their televisions these days, they can view pictures of the Titanic on the ocean floor and Halley's Comet deep in space. But if they want to watch their own United States Senate in action, they have to come to Washington and queue up for one of only about 600 seats in the public gallery.
That soon may change, for the Senate finally may be outgrowing its shyness. The Senate Rules Committee recently approved a resolution that would provide for live radio coverage of Senate proceedings as well as a test period for live television coverage. The resolution could and should go before the full Senate for approval in the coming days -- if the leadership agrees to place it on the calendar of business to be attended to before the Christmas recess.
The Senate does not take (or take to) change lightly. In 1982 and again in 1984, various delays kept the Senate from approving resolutions to clear the way for televised coverage of its proceedings. But four decades into the television age -- and six years after the House of Representatives took to the air, the Senate may be turning on to the idea. In a recent poll, 67 senators told the Cable Satellite Public Affairs Network (C-SPAN) that they would support televised coverage in some form, while only 18 senators firmly opposed it.
Television has proved itself in the House, where representatives generally agree that coverage helps the public follow issues before Congress. At the same time, we believe TV has made congressmen more deliberate in debate, more responsive, and not least, more influential.
We also believe it is clear where the American people stand. Since 1979, C-SPAN has expanded its reach from 3.5 million homes to 21.5 million -- more than a quarter of the TV households in America. The network says at least 20 million viewers watch C-SPAN frequently, and 93 percent of them voted in the 1984 elections.
By contrast, the Senate gallery's 611 seats are just enough for a bevy of lobbyists and a good-sized school tour. Even if the Senate met around the clock, each seat would have to change hands a thousand times a day, 365 days a year, for every American to get a glimpse of the democratic process in that chamber. And that, of course, assumes every American could afford the considerable expense involved in traveling to Washington. Democracy should not be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. After all, in this age of instantaneous communication, when it is vital that all of us have access to as much information as is available about the critical matters confronting America and all mankind, can we logically turn our backs on the televised medium? At this late date in the 20th century, is not television the logical extension of the Senate's public gallery? Or should only those monied and fortunate enough to travel to Washington be allowed to view our Senate?
In addition to the House, 45 state legislatures televise their proceedings. And other democratic countries recognize the virtues of truly open government. The Canadian Parliament has been televised since 1977, and Britain's 900-year- old House of Lords went on the telly in January. At least 20 other nations also televise their legislative bodies.
The Senate has taken time to make certain that cameras will not hinder its long-running and much-revered traditions. While its procedures are more complicated than those of the House, there is no insurmountable obstacle to radio and television coverage. Pending legislation to televise the Senate would protect the rights of individual senators and maintain the integrity of the institution. To ease the transition, the resolution calls for a trial period of closed-circuit television coverage, with only live radio broadcasts to begin immediately. And the Senate has already had a successful experience with radio. In 1977, the Senate allowed live radio broadcasts of its debate on the Panama Canal treaties. More than 30 million Americans tuned in. With that wiring still in place, it would cost virtually nothing to go back on the air on a gavel- to-gavel basis. Once senators get used to radio broadcasts, we believe any lingering resistance to televised proceedings will diminish rapidly.
Through the years, our political system has thrived on its ability to adapt and grow. That system has consistently made the right decisions, not because it is necessarily the best or only system, but because the American people have been remarkedly right in their decisions. Americans clearly now want the Senate to televise its work and open another door of democracy. We earnestly hope for an expedited hearing of this issue by the full Senate. For we are convinced the Senate will see there is nothing to fear but the dark.