Improbable as it may seem, the House of Representatives is suffering from an acute case of camera-shyness, and for good reason.
A 90-day television test-filming of House sessions shows that, because of the lighting in the chamber, bald heads shine like the sun, chins recede in shadow and deep circles ring the eyes of members, creating what one evaluative report called "the racoon effect."
Rep. Shirley Chisholm (D-N.Y.) also objected that, because of the lighting, black members of the House tend to "disappear" from the screen altogether.
Furthermore, even the most bassoon-voiced members, such as Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), can barely be heard on the television set if they turn their head away from the microphone.
Such were the findings of a House subcommittee headed by Rep. Gillis W. Long (D-La.), which recommended yesterday that the House televise its sessions but cited the aforementioned concerns as worthy of furhter House consideration.
"It's not as easy as we thought to put in television," observed Speakers Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.). He said he does not think it will be possible to place cameras in operation in the House chamber this year, as was originally planned.
The complications in the House television scheme are not only telegenic. Some are technical, such as what fees to charge distributors for access to the footage. Some are legal, such as whether the films could be used in court cases to construe legislative intent.
But the transcending problem for the Long subcommittee is the image of the House.
The subcommittee recommended, to no one's surprise that the House should control and operate its own broadcast coverage rather than turning it over to the news media.
Members were fearful that free-roaming cameras would catch them napping and, in the view of House leaders, ohterwise distort the proceedings. O'Neill said, only half in jest, that the networks would try to control the House the way they controlled the National Football League - demanding breaks for commercials as well as prime starting hours.
The subcommittee found that the operators manning the test cameras had trouble finding the member who was on his feet, and wound up photographing empty chairs.
"Some means must also be found to control the cameras in such a way as to produce proper framing of members, whether they are standing still or moving," the report said. "Improper controls of cameras will produce amateurish pictures unworthy of the dignity of the House."
"The overhead lighting currently in the chamber often results in unflattering and sometimes unrecognizable pictures of the members," the subcommittee report said.
As one member groused afterward, "I've seen better home movies."