Thirty-four years ago in Chicago, Everett M. Dirksen, then a congressman from Illinois, watched a baseball game on television and prophetically reported to his colleagues in Congress that "There is hardly a lounge or a hotel lobby that does not have a rather large television set. It is only a question of time, of course, until speeches by members of the House and the Senate will be televised."
A question of time. Within a decade, television had become the dominant mass communications form in this country, and altered perhaps forever, the way Americans see themselves and perceive the world.
And yet the House of Representatives did not open itself to full television coverage until 1979 and--more to the point-- the Senate has yet to do so. I propose we of the Senate answer the question of time with the word "now."
On July 17, 1981, the Senate took a big step toward that goal. The Committee on Rules and Administration passed a resolution that provides for television and radio coverage, including videotapes and radio broadcast recordings, of proceedings in the Senate chamber. The coverage would be continuous when the Senate is in session--except on those rare occasions when the Senate holds a private session for national security reasons.
The resolution will come before the entire Senate for consideration next week, and it is both my expectation and my hope that it will be approved.
I believe that radio and television will be a complement to the legislative process that is long overdue, that we must use the technological means at hand to further communication between government and citizen, and that opening the Senate to radio and television can enhance and increase the public's involvement with the entire legislative process.
Throughout the first seven years of its existence, the Senate operated behind closed doors, a policy that became the target of widespread scorn, as illustrated by a 1792 National Gazette article: "Upright intentions, and upright conduct are not afraid or ashamed of publicity. The spirit of a Venetian Senate suits not, as yet, the meridian of the United States; neither does the conduct of a conclave comport with the feelings of Americans."
In 1794, the Senate by a "lopsided victory" provided for public galleries to be established.
Introducing broadcasting to the chamber merely extends the gallery; it would make it public, by 20th-century standards. Not every citizen in every part of the country can make the trip to Washington to sit in that gallery and view the Senate in person; but through radio and television coverage virtually everyone could make the electronic journey that would give them a window on the Senate floor.
More Americans get their news from broadcast sources now than from any other form of communication. Television has become, in the words of media critic Michael Arlen, "America's Highway Number One." It is time for the Senate to avail itself of this instrument and this resource.
We have the successful example of the House of Representatives to attest to the wisdom and fitness of the concept. Television pictures from the House were first made available to the broadcast media on March 19, 1979. Since that time, most of the misgivings some may have had about the idea have been laid to rest, and the benefits from it have exceeded expectations.
Viewership is high and enthusiastic, satisfaction with the system seems almost unanimous. Early fears that members would be intimidated or bedazzled by the television cameras in their midst have by and large been proven groundless. Showmanship has not run amok in the House, nor have its members run off in droves to sign up for acting or elocution lessons. I am convinced that the open eye of the camera will not wreak havoc on the deliberative process in the Senate or turn its members into performers vying for a spotlight--not any more than they already are, that is.
Some of my colleagues have argued that the presence of television would compromise not only the Senate's dignity but also the quality of debate on the Senate floor. I believe exactly the opposite to be true, and we have the experience of the House to support this contention. House leaders have told me that the presence of television has improved, not hindered, debate in that chamber.
I favor the implementation of scheduled debates on the great issues of the day, intentionally to lay out for ourselves and for the public the parameters of current or impending public policy issues. I am not talking about normal legislative debate but serious debates on the major issues confronting the nation. I would like to see these debates scheduled so that not only the Senate participated but there was an opportunity for all the country to see and hear, as that debate unfolded, the deliberations of the people who were elected to make those public judgments and to elaborate those public policies. The Senate is better equipped than any group I know of to undertake a careful examination and a detailed study of the great issues that must face this Republic and must be resolved as public policy.
Senate proceedings would be broadcast live for same-day use, and also taped and stored for future reference. Schoolchildren, historians and other citizens will be able to go to the U.S. Archives or a special library, decades or even hundreds of years from now, to watch this Congress's deliberations "live" on tape.
If the technology had been available 100 years ago, we would now be able to watch the Lincoln-Douglas debates, or a speech by Daniel Webster.
We owe it not only to ourselves but to those generations to come to make this possibility a reality.
No one could argue that television, and the new era of communications that has come with it, have had only positive effects on our society and our way of life. That's not the issue, for television is a reality, and it represents reality to millions who rely on it for a view of the world. The issue before the Senate is whether we are going to utilize that which is best in television to improve our democratic process or continue to turn our backs on its intriguing and far-reaching possibilities.
Democracy thrives on public support, and public support thrives on open government. It is unrealistic to expect public support when we won't let the public see us doing what we do in the legislative process. It is time to draw back the curtain and open the Senate chamber to the eyes and ears of the world.
Indeed, 100 years from now, when citizens of the 21st century look back on this momentous decision, they will wonder that we did not make it sooner.