The American television-viewing public may soon be offered a new docudrama that asks the question: "Should the Senate table the appeal of the chair that the amendment in the nature of the substitute to the first committee amendment to the House-passed bill amends the same section of the bill twice and is therefore out of order?"
For senators, the question is simpler: Will the Senate be the same after the country sees it in all its unabbreviated glory, complete with gavel-to-gavel filibusters, four-hour quorum calls and endless haggling over such arcane questions as tabling the appeal of the chair?
When the Senate voted Thursday to begin televising its proceedings on a trial basis June 1, there were about 100 opinions among the 100 senators about how cameras will affect operations of what they proudly call the "world's greatest deliberative body."
The lack of consensus is one reason for the Senate's lengthy debate over whether to try television, seven years after the House did so with far less argument and angst.
A key factor is the peculiar nature of the Senate, which departs in many ways from the normal American tradition of majority rule. To encourage debate and foster new ideas, to protect political minorities and to act as a brake on precipitous action, it functions largely by consensus, often only by unanimous consent. In upholding these traditions, the Senate is, in words heard during the debate on televising its proceedings, often "disorderly," even "messy."
The question is whether television is compatible with these traditions. The 67-to-21 vote to experiment with television appeared to underscore not only the irresistible appeal of the camera but a willingness to gamble.
At one end of the argument were those who contended television would lead to excess grandstanding that, in turn, would increase pressures for constraints that would undercut the chamber's role as a forum for debate and dissent.
"I'm afraid the effect is going to be revolutionary," said Sen. J. Bennett Johnston (D-La.).
"It's going to make it difficult for the Senate to get its work done . . . and there will be pressure for changing rules to limit debate," he said. "Everyone from the garden club to the Lion's Club runs on majority rule. They don't understand why the Senate should be different."
At the other end of the argument were those who said the presence of cameras would enliven debate, get rid of some sloppy habits and possibly produce better-informed lawmakers and better laws.
Increased public awareness of how the Senate does business will improve the institution, said Senate Minority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), who led the drive for television in its final successful phase. "It's slipped to a pretty low level. It's worse than I've ever seen it," he added.
In between were those, perhaps a majority, who felt that television cameras probably would be beneficial but potentially risky.
"It's a big, big gamble," commented Sen. Dan Quayle (R-Ind.), who said he favors televising the Senate but voted against the measure because he felt that rules changes to expedite work and make the Senate more suitable for television did not go far enough.
In approving the trial period for television, the Senate agreed to restrain its members' ability to continue delaying tactics after filibusters are limited by a cloture vote, but dropped a variety of other proposals, including stronger filibuster curbs.
"There's a real tension there and it's hard to reconcile -- the instant demands of television and the deliberate nature of the Senate," said Sen. Paul S. Trible Jr. (R-Va.), who voted for the television proposal. But he said he worries that it will force the Senate to adopt a more structured style, as in the House. "The Senate is not intended to operate as the House does but as a counterweight . . . . I worry about maintaining the deliberate nature of this place," he added.
Quayle and Trible both served in the House when television began there in 1979. They said they think that it has served the House well. What concerns Trible and some others is that television is better suited to the more disciplined House, which generally operates under time restraints on debate.
They also said cameras in the Senate chamber may simply have been inevitable after the House opened its doors to TV and not only survived but built up a large and growing cable-television audience.
Not only are the two bodies jealous of each other, but House members have a habit of running for the Senate, and senators are loathe to see a potential rival hogging the spotlight.
Sen. Albert Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.) also served in the House when it began televising its proceedings and said he thinks that the public will not be insensitive to differences between the two bodies. "A lot of people around here give the American people too little credit for catching on," he said, adding, "Let it [the Senate] be seen, and if that results in pressure for change, then so be it."
While the Senate's outlook for the impact of television on its proceedings is unclear, one of the most respected independent observers of Congress is optimistic.
"The excess of informality that has characterized the Senate, the extreme bending over backwards to satisfy 100 prima donnas while losing control of the Senate in the process, will come to a stop," said Norman Ornstein, a political scientist at the American Enterprise Institute