Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.) was mistakenly included Wednesday in a list of senators up for reelection this year whose hearings in March and April were covered by Democratic Policy Committee television camera crews. Hollings will be up for reelection in 1992. (Published 6/7/90)
Taxpayer-financed camera crews and technicians working for the Senate Democratic and Republican policy committees cover more Senate committee hearings than any of the major television networks or even the ubiquitous crews from C-SPAN or Cable News Network (CNN).
By sending their own party's crews to hearings or other events, senators can guarantee they have tapes of their activities, edited by their own staffs, to transmit by satellite back to home state stations for immediate use on local news broadcasts.
In March, television cameras were at 70 different Senate hearings, according to a Senate compilation of television coverage in March and April. The Democrats' crew covered 25 of them; the Republicans', 20. CNN covered only 15, and C-SPAN, 14. The networks were at far fewer: NBC at seven and the two other networks, ABC and CBS, only four each that month.
In April, when 51 hearings were covered, the Democrats were at 17, the Republicans at seven. C-SPAN was at nine; CNN, ABC and CBS were at six, while NBC was at only four.
The cost to taxpayers of this service to Senate incumbents is difficult to determine and not separately identified in budget documents or hearings, although Senate sources estimated it exceeds $500,000 a year.
Coverage of committee hearings by party camera crews is one part of a broad and growing effort by the Senate to produce its own electronic coverage of senators' activities. Currently, portable lights are needed in Senate hearing rooms to accommodate television cameras. In next year's budget for the Architect of the Capitol, the Senate is seeking $250,000 to study the costs of renovating committee hearing rooms and installing television lighting systems.
The Senate also is seeking $1.5 million to develop its own internal cable television system so it no longer will have to request the use of channels on the existing cable system, which is controlled by the House.
In-house television coverage of Senate hearings began recently through the House-run cable system on a first-come, first-served basis as requested by committees. Twenty-seven Senate hearing rooms already have been permanently equipped for audio broadcast, which the Senate began using on the House system last January.
But even before permanent cable capability is installed, party coverage of hearings already is extensive, including hearings that feature incumbents involved in reelection races.
On two occasions during March, only Democratic Policy Committee cameras were at hearings chaired by Sen. J. Bennett Johnston (D-La.), who may be involved in a difficult reelection campaign. Johnston had requested them, a Senate aide said, but not because he was up for reelection.
One Johnston hearing, before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee which he chairs, dealt with the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, a major issue in Louisiana. The other was before Johnston's Appropriations subcommittee and concerned a Red River public works project important to northern Louisiana. Tapes of both hearings were shown over Louisiana television stations, the Senate source said.
At three other hearings in March dealing with education, agriculture and the national parks, only party organization cameras were present. Sen. Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.), currently in a close election race, chaired one. Party crews were again the only ones present at 12 hearings in April, including hearings chaired by Sens. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.) and David H. Pryor (D-Ark.), both of whom are up for reelection.
Coverage by the Democratic crews is allowed only "for official business" and arranged on a first-come, first-served basis, according to Diane Dewhirst, communications director for the Senate Democratic Policy Committee. She said the list of those requesting the service is not public.
J. Robert Vastine, staff director of the Senate Republican Conference, did not respond to requests for an interview. One Senate GOP staffer said his party system was also first-come, first-served.
A Senate veteran, who asked not to be identified, said he was aware of party television crews that have attended hearings and recorded the empty chair of an incumbent from the other party. "Committee staffs have begun turning over members' nameplates when there are television crews around so they can't be read," this source said.