The bill: $4.1 billion in foreign aid for fiscal year 1980. The amendment: to prohibit any U.S. assistance for members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. On the floor: a handful of members of Congress most interested in the foreign aid bill, both pro and con.
The bells and buzzers ring and the lights flash in 435 offices on the south side of Capitol Hill, and in the hallways, committee rooms, dining rooms and swimming pool. The vote is called.
In a time-honored tradition of the Hill, those few of us participating in the debate station ourselves just inside the doors of the chamber, ready to offer information and guidance to our colleagues rushing to vote.
Those of us on the Foreign Affairs Committee and other allies who understand the true effect of the amendment are resigned to defeat. Our several hundred colleagues who will come running through these doors, with only minutes to reach the voting machinery, will hear only brief words of information: "an amendment to prohibit aid to OPEC." "Save $100 million."
Who could vote "no?" How could anyone want to keep sending U.S. foreign air to the robber barons who just raised their prices and gouged the American people for another couple of billion dollars? Why should we be sending them aid?
The amendment was defeated: 175 ayes; 222 noes.
Aid to OPEC members was not prohibited? The dynamics of the House of Representatives had changed. "I was watching the debate on TV," they said as they poured through the doors. "I know what this amendment is all about."
What they knew was that only three members of OPEC received direct assistance from the United States: Nigeria, Ecuador and Indonesia. Nigeria and Indonesia, two of the most populous countries in the world. Ecuador, still a quite poor developing country. All three strong friends of the United States. All three with development programs seriously attempting to address the basic human needs of their people. None of them rolling in petro-dollars, and none of them leaders of OPEC or advocates of ever-higher prices.
These several hundred members of Congress rushing onto the floor knew that the issue at debate was not OPEC, but simply a cover for whether you supported international development assistance or opposed it; whether you backed the main bill, or were out to cut whatever you could.
They knew because they watched TV. Channel 3. The closed-circuit monitor of gavel-to-gavel coverage of the proceedings of the House of Representatives.
I wasn't around when the decision was made to televise House proceedings. But I know it was a long and intense debate, pitting the "right of the people to know" against a somewhat justified but also exaggerated fear that TV cameras would result in distortion and grandstanding. With live coverage only a few weeks old, and carried by only a few cable TV networks, it is far too early to judge whether the public is learning anything more, or if a fair and accurate image of Congress-in-action is being transmitted.
But I know the impact it's having on the House, and I wonder whether anyone even thought about that during the great debate. I have a feeling that history may just conclude that Congress finally figured out what it was doing when TV came to the chamber.
It used to be that about all a representative knew about the vote he was running to cast was, "If it's Tuesday, this must be Fisheries Managemnet." He relied on familiar faces just inside the doorway-preferably someone whose view he felt reasonably confident he would share-to tell him what the specific motion was . . . and whether an "aye" vote was for or against the issue . . . and, really, "how should I vote?"
But it's not quite so superficial anymore. It's on TV. If the member is in his office, reading through reports and other documents, signing letters, or even meeting visitors, he can leave the television turned on, perhaps at low volume, but just enough to hear what's being said and follow what's going on. Or, if he's off at a committee meeting or lunch, his staff can moonitor the TV, and when the buzzers rings, he can call in and check the situation-getting a concise but trustable briefing and guidance-before he goes running to the floor.
It makes a difference. I think the case can be made that Congress-or at least the House, since the Senate still hides from the camera's eye-has finally found a way to keep up with itself. CAPTION: Illustration, no caption, By Zarko Karabatic for The Washington Post