An article yesterday said cable television coverage of the House reaches about 4 million potential viewers. The correct figure is 30 million, according to officials of the Cable Satellite Public Affairs Network. Picture, SEN. HOWARD H. BAKER JR . . . "television is a reality"
Opponents say bald pates will cast an unsenatorial glare onto the 21-inch screen and blue shirts will blossom alongside 60-second melodramas and catchy one-liners in the greatest deliberative body in the world.
Supporters say the fading glories of the Senate will be restored, bringing the hoary old tradition-bound chamber into the 20th century and spreading legislative light throughout the land.
Televise the Senate?
To outsiders, the issue may seem to pale alongside soaring unemployment, a careening economy and billions on the line for new weapons. But it doesn't pale inside the Senate, where the hallowed ghost of Daniel Webster still reigns and the thought of change jars aristocratic sensitivities like the intrusion of a commoner into the royal family.
Majority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.) seems to be the senator most eager to turn on the cameras and catch up with the House, which voted to put itself on TV four years ago.
But Baker may not have the votes. "It would change the basic nature of the Senate and not for the better," intoned TV's arch opponent, Sen. Russell B. Long (D-La.), who believes that preening to the cameras is a temptation no politician can resist. "The greatest surplus commodity we have is speeches that do need not be made," Long said.
Why all this fuss in an age when television already has invaded almost every aspect of American life--from courtrooms to funerals, from the tumult of House debate to the gore of far-off bloodied battlefields?
It is not as if television is new to the Senate. The small screen has recorded some of the most dramatic moments in modern Senate history, shoving "How The World Turns" and the midday soaps out of the ratings.
In the early 1950s the flickering black-and-white image of another senator from Tennessee, Estes Kefauver, fluttered before 20 million viewers as the television cameras entered a Senate hearing for the first time. Overnight, Kefauver became a national hero, the cameras watching him delve into the murky shadows of organized crime. Kefauver used the new exposure to make several unsuccessful runs for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Three years later the dark and jowly countenance of senator Joseph McCarthy filled American living rooms. The drama was even more captivating, the results different. McCarthy and his flamboyant anti-communist hearings faded from view shortly afterward, a political fall that the pundits attributed to the powerful influence of television.
Then, in 1973, the cameras came into full focus on the Senate Watergate hearings. Once again, the nation was captivated. And the Senate's power and public image, widely regarded to have declined in relationship to an increasingly strong presidency, soared as millions watched.
Still, those were committee hearings. The cameras have not invaded the sanctum of the Senate floor, except on ceremonial occasions such as the oath-taking of Nelson Rockefeller as President Ford's vice president. There are many, such as Long, a Senate insider since the days when the southern Democrats treated it as a private club, who hope the intrusive little eye never worms its way into day-by-day debate.
The reasons range from the frivolous--during floor debate Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.) worried aloud that his colleagues would hire stylists to "fluff" their hair--to serious questions about the role of the Senate in American government.
Long worries that the cameras will draw senators out of crucial committee work and onto the televised floor where "they will waste a great deal of time, with a great deal of posturing and image-making." The limited vision of the camera, he said, will "convey an image that is completely different from the reality" of the Senate's inner workings--and thereby slowly change that reality.
Sen. John C. Danforth (R-Mo.), a relative newcomer but also an opponent, also worries about false realities, arguing that television "does not simply report the news but creates the news."
Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) articulates the deepest issue by questioning whether television is compatible with a body designed to be "deliberative rather than representative."
Gavel-to-gavel television coverage, moved by the Cable Satellite Public Affairs Network into a moderate number of American homes, began in the House of Representatives four years ago after a similar debate.
Opponents fretted that the cameras would catch congressmen taking their occasional mid-debate naps or at those times when the frenzy of the 435-member House resembles a flock of hungry seagulls. Indeed, after a trial period, the report came back that bald pates did glare unflatteringly into the tube and that the chamber's lighting was so poor that strong jaws receded and penetrating eyes faded into black shadows. "The racoon effect," one opponent muttered.
Still, the House went ahead in 1979 after agreeing to place the cameras in the hands of trusted House employes, instead of the commercial networks, and setting other rules that severely limited outside use of the filmed proceedings.
Baker argues that the House experiment has been successful, answering many of the arguments of his Senate opponents. "Showmanship has not run amok in the House," he said, "nor have its members run off in droves to sign up for acting or elocution lessons."
Television merely extends the public galleries in both houses, Baker said, and is a logical extension into the 20th century. He also warns that television coverage of the House, while the Senate revels in its non-electronic privacy, could alter the public's perception of which chamber is the dominant body.
Cable coverage reaches about 4 million potential viewers in roughly three-fourths of the nation's 435 congressional districts, although no one has been hasty enough to suggest it challenges other daytime soaps in the ratings race. Still, the commercial networks pick up bits of crucial House debates for the evening news. The Senate does not get part of that action.
Baker sees this reality in a different light from Long and Danforth. "Television is a reality," the majority leader said, "and it represents reality to millions who rely on it for a view of the world."
Sen. Dan Quayle (R-Ind.), a freshman who was in the House when the cameras arrived and supports bringing them into the Senate, also said the House experience puts down the arguments he hears against the proposal. "The House functions as effectively today as it did before," Quayle said. "The one-minute speeches didn't get any better or any worse."
Still, the House is not the Senate. For the first seven years of its existence, the Senate met in private with no public observers. For more than 100 years after that, until the beginning of the 20th century with all its technological advances, senators did not face public elections. They were sent to Washington by elections within their state legislatures.
Senators believe, and they are backed by 200 years of tradition and the rhetoric of the country's founding fathers, that they comprise a truly deliberative body--protected by rules and traditions insulating them from "the tyranny of the majority" and the quick mood swings of a fickle, democratic public. They have six-year terms, staggered so that no single election can turn out more than a third of its members.
The Senate often moves slowly and ponderously. It allows unlimited debate--including a filibuster that still may dash Baker's hopes to bring its proceedings under the scrutiny of the televised eye.
Would television alter the Senate's strengths that much? Baker says not, and argues that modern television is the means to restore the traditional Senate to its moments of the past glories of Webster and Clay and Douglas. Television, Baker said, is the "next and best step we can take to restore to the Senate the quality of a great forum of public debate."
Still, even in the House new doubts are arising. During the recent elections the worst of the worst happened. House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.), caught in a tight race, suddenly saw some old and unflattering floor-debate footage of himself--in his opponent's television ads. Michel still is steaming, and some members of the House and Senate are grumbling that, politically, television exposure cuts both ways.