A new era begins today for the House of Representatives as it inaugurates a $1.2 million system to televise floor debates.
The first day's fare -- the reading of George Washington's Farewell Address -- will be pretty tame stuff, and it will be two weeks or more before tapes of floor debate will be available for use in news programs or documentaries.
But today's inaugural ends 30 years of debate over whether to allow cameras in Congress. The senate is expected to follow the House's lead soon.
But the controversy surrounding the installation of cameras is not resolved. One issue -- whether the networks or the House will run the system -- was settled when the House opted to operate it, leaving the networks miffed.
But another issue -- what use members can make of viteotapes of the debates -- is only beginning.
The Democratic leadership has decided that members can use their official expense accounts to buy tapes of debates for distribution to local television stations. The 30-minute copies will cost $100 each.
Rep. John B. Anderson (R-Ill.) charged that the policy allows the system to become another "incumbent protection device at taxpayers' expense." While the leadership ruled out using the tapes for political and commercial purposes, Anderson fears that sending tapes to local television stations will have that effect. He also fears it may "distort and prolong the proceedings" as members grandstand on the floor.
Rep. Charles Rose (D-N.C.), a member of the speaker's task force, which worked out the broadcast system, said tapes won't be available to members the same day they are made, lessening their news value. "If members get to ordering too many tapes, we'll make public who orders what," Rose added.
If that doesn't work, he said, the leadership would consider prohibiting members from buying tapes.
But Rose also pointed out that anyone with a quality videotape machine could tape a broadcast and send a member's remarks to a television station. He also noted that challengers in an election could use the tapes, though he plans to introduce legislation to prohibit that.
Rose contended that members have a "First Amendment right" to what is being made available to the public.
The House has installed six color TV cameras in the gallery. They are operated by remote control from a room in the basement. Salaries for 12 technicians to operate the system will run $275,000 a year, in addition to the $1.2 million for equipment. The Capitol architect built the basement control room and installed the system, so those costs weren't included in the total.
The networks object to the fact that camera coverage will be controlled and operated by the House, which plans to screen out unflattering close-ups, shots of members napping, or any activity not related to the debate. "If the majority leader and the minority leader get into a fight and they don't have recognition to speak, they could kill each other and we wouldn't cover," Rose said.
The networks wanted to bring in their own cameras without restrictions, and charge the House for making a gavel-to-gavel tape.
Network officials have adopted a "wait-and-see" attitude about whether they will use any of the House-produced film. They explain that their technicians' union contracts prevent them from using more than three minutes of any film that does not come from a legitimate broadcast source and that they do not consider the House operation a legitimate broadcast system.
But a network correspondent predicted, "Of course we're going to use the film. There's no way there's going to be a hot issue on the floor and we just pass it up."
Public broadcasting also is reserving judgment on what it will use and how, though it often broadcasts important congressional hearings.
So far, the only enthusiastic customer for the House-produced television is a cable television system, Cable Satellite Public Affairs Network (C-SPAN). It will make more or less continuous coverage of the House available to cable systems that can receive satellite transmissions.
Brian Lamb, organizer of C-SPAN, said that about 1,000 of the 4,000 cable systems in the United States can use satellite transmissions and he is trying to line up 200 initial customers. By the end of the year he hopes the cable broadcasts of House proceedings will reach about 5 million homes.
An Arlington, Va., cable system that now serves a few thousand homes will be able to pick up the satellite transmissions.