The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Let C-SPAN’s cameras back into the House

People at the Capitol in Washington watch a C-SPAN broadcast of the House chamber as members vote for a new speaker on Jan. 4. (Sarah Silbiger/Reuters)

Watching Congress has been boring this week, and not just because the speaker drama got resolved. When the House came back into session Monday night to vote on its rules package for the next two years, citizens viewing at home saw less of what was happening on the floor because government employees, instead of independent C-SPAN camera operators, once again controlled the video feed and projected staid and static images of the dais. During the days before the new Congress was sworn in, Americans were given a rare opportunity to see their representatives at work elsewhere in the chamber, engaging in candid give-and-take. We support bipartisan efforts to make that the new norm in the people’s House.

If government cameramen had controlled the video feed during the historic showdown over whether Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) would claim the speaker’s gavel, strict guidelines would have prevented them from zooming in on the near-fisticuffs between Reps. Mike D. Rogers (R-Ala.) and Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.). Instead, they would have merely shown people looking toward the ruckus from the front of the chamber. We wouldn’t have seen Mr. McCarthy and his lieutenants working over the holdouts to secure their votes. There would have been no cutaway shots of Rep. George Santos (R-N.Y.), the freshman fabulist. We wouldn’t have seen scores of bipartisan conversations, including Rep. Paul A. Gosar (R-Ariz.) asking Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) whether Democrats might step off the floor to lower the threshold for Mr. McCarthy to secure the speakership.

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There’s a backstory behind why we don’t see such angles during the normal course of business. Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and his contemporaries mastered the technique of giving fiery speeches on an empty House floor after the 1979 launch of the Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network. Then-Speaker Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.) ordered the cameras to cut away from Mr. Gingrich so viewers could see the deserted chamber, which exposed his theatrics as phony. Ever since, leaders in both parties have rejected requests for more transparency and independent control of cameras during day-to-day sessions. The main exception is joint sessions of Congress, specifically the State of the Union, when still photographers and independent cameras are allowed inside. Speaker elections have also been open to cameras, but they were more ceremonial than suspenseful for the past century.

The coverage of the recent proceedings generated boffo reviews. “C-SPAN Unleashes Its Inner Scorsese,” wrote the New Yorker. The Hollywood Reporter called it “America’s Hottest TV Drama in 2023.” New York magazine dubbed it “C-Span Gone Wild.”

Jim Geraghty: How did politics get so awful? I blame MTV circa 1992.

Susan Swain, co-CEO of C-SPAN, sent a letter Tuesday requesting that Mr. McCarthy allow her nonprofit to freely cover House floor proceedings on behalf of the networks and all congressionally accredited news organizations. She wants to install a few additional cameras in the chamber to supplement what’s already produced by the House and urges covering debates “fully, accurately and with the same unbiased production style on which we’ve built our reputation.” Ms. Swain even floats a compromise of allowing independent cameras into the chamber for key legislative sessions and major votes.

Refreshingly, a bipartisan range of lawmakers is calling for changing the rules to allow this. “It was a good thing for people to be able to see the inner workings,” Rep. Chip Roy (R-Tex.) told CNN. “It’s humanizing,” Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.) said on MSNBC. “The pool view of the Congress is antiquated and a little boomer-fied,” Mr. Gaetz told Fox News after introducing a measure to permanently allow four C-SPAN cameras in the chamber. Several progressives, led by Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), plan to introduce their own legislation to liberate the cameras.

So far, Mr. McCarthy’s office is noncommittal. We hope he listens to his members. This isn’t about political theater or creating fodder for comedians. Nor does it have anything to do with ratings. (Nielsen doesn’t even rate C-SPAN.) It is about giving the nation a more accurate view of how Congress really works — and often doesn’t.

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Editorials represent the views of The Post as an institution, as determined through debate among members of the Editorial Board, based in the Opinions section and separate from the newsroom.

Members of the Editorial Board and areas of focus: Opinion Editor David Shipley; Deputy Opinion Editor Karen Tumulty; Associate Opinion Editor Stephen Stromberg (national politics and policy, legal affairs, energy, the environment, health care); Lee Hockstader (European affairs, based in Paris); David E. Hoffman (global public health); James Hohmann (domestic policy and electoral politics, including the White House, Congress and governors); Charles Lane (foreign affairs, national security, international economics); Heather Long (economics); Associate Editor Ruth Marcus; and Molly Roberts (technology and society).