MEMBERS OF CONGRESS aren't normally camera-shy. But lots of them, starting with Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill, are still resisting the idea of letting television broadcasters film everyday sessions of the House. Mr. O'Neill and most of his colleagues have come to see the benefits of airing some pictures of the House at work. But they insist that the cameras should be controlled by the House itself, not by a network pool or other group of professional broadcasters. This issue -- which a Rules subcommittee last week called "central, critical and emotionally charged" -- comes before the full Rules Committee this week and, Speaker O'Neill has indicated, will ultimately be settled by the full House.
The Rules subcommittee, while favoring a Houserun system, acknowledged that a network pool would have some advantages. It would cost less and impose fewer administrative burdens on the House. More important, professional broadcasters could best deal with the technical problems revealed by a 90-day, House-run test. These include inadequate microphones, difficulties in focusing cameras and overhead lighting that casts deep shadows on members' faces. It is said that the effect is to make them look something like raccoons. Of course the House could hire skilled technicians itself, but that would probably take longer and cost more.
The overriding consideration, however, has become the approach that professional broadcasters might take. Some members fear that network camera operators, inherently interested in drama and news, would let their lenses roam around the hall, especially during dull debates, and zero in on empty chairs or legislators who are dozing, signing mail or telling jokes. Many acknowledge that professional broadcasters have been able to cover countless presidential news conferences, congressional hearings, political conventions and over 40 state legislatures without running up a long record of cheap shots. Even so, there seems to be a widespread apprehension about allowing any independent coverage that might somehow convey the wrong -- or perhaps the right -- picture of the activities and atmosphere of the House.
And what would a House-run system provide? Its aim, the subcommittee says, "is to provide a complete, uninterrupted and accurate record of the official proceedings and business of the House," which broadcasters could use as they see fit. That sounds dispassionate enough until you read the rest of the sentence, which says that the videotaped record should be -- God save the mark -- "a kind of visual and audio parallel to the Congressional Record." If you are familiar with the pages of self-serving fluff that fill the appendix of that publication and the way members revise and extend their remarks, you will understand why that analogy pretty well sums up the issue before the House: whether members have the guts to offer the television audience real news coverage of their deliberations -- or whether they will insist on a self-edited picture of events.