For the first time in its 16-year history, C-SPAN is regularly showing all the action on the House floor.
In a change that has angered some lawmakers, House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) last week ordered the camera operators to begin taking cutaway shots while House members are speaking, interspersed with broader pictures of the chamber. This is a sharp break with the long-standing practice of keeping the camera tightly focused on whoever is speaking, in effect blacking out the rest of the floor.
The new approach provides a fuller picture of the House but also shows viewers that the chamber is empty during evening or late night speeches known as "special orders." In a technique pioneered by Gingrich, some House members make lengthy remarks as if they were addressing their colleagues but really are playing to the television audience.
The lawmakers are accustomed to being out of camera range as they chat or make deals on the floor. During last week's welfare debate, some Democrats were upset when the camera panned to one member leaning over a table and another who seemed to be wringing her hands.
"There is enormous pressure on the speaker to change it back to the way it was," said Brian Lamb, chief executive of the nonprofit network, who long has lobbied for the change. "A lot of members are screaming behind the scenes because they don't like it. Sometimes those elected to Congress forget it is a taxpayer-supported institution."
About 30 Republican members have signed a letter to Gingrich urging a return to the old rules. Some Democrats also raised objections.
"Some felt extreme close-ups of people not involved in the debate were intrusive," said Tony Blankley, Gingrich's press secretary. "They didn't like the idea of cutaways. They felt the main speaker ought to be given coverage. But without a cutaway, you can't tell the story."
C-SPAN's cameras are controlled by Congress, not the network. The previous practice of keeping the cameras fixed on whoever was speaking was briefly suspended once, in 1984. In a highly publicized incident, then-Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.), angered by Gingrich, ordered the cameras to pan the vacant chamber while Republicans were delivering their special orders.
Since January, Gingrich has opened virtually all House committee hearings and his daily news conference to C-SPAN cameras. But resistance to the more sweeping floor coverage was so stiff that Blankley personally had to order recalcitrant camera operators to follow the new rules. The Senate has not made such a change.
"We're mimicking the kind of camera work that electronic news organizations would do if they had the opportunity," Blankley said. "The networks are happy with it. It's likely to result in more news coverage of the House."
Some lawmakers have complained that their floor negotiations are now open to public scrutiny; others say they no longer can come from the House gym in sneakers. Blankley said the new approach "will depend on how strongly members feel. Obviously, if they want to revert to the old coverage, that will be their right."
Reps. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.) and Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), ranking members on a House task force on the media, warned colleagues of the possible change in a letter. But some were still taken aback by the camera panning.
Lamb maintained that viewers will benefit from the broader coverage. "I've always believed the public reacted negatively because they were suspicious that they weren't seeing the real picture," he said. "The people at home were being fooled." A House Republican aide put it this way: "Any time there's change, people are going to squawk. If the complaint is just I was picking my nose and the camera was on me,' the answer is going to be, don't pick your nose."