Senate Set for TV Debut; Tax Debate a Test
Lights, camera . . . filibuster!
Television cameras today will give viewers across the nation their first glimpse of the daily grind inside the Senate chamber: not only of the drama, tension and fiery oratory, but also of the interminable hours when a single senator may drone on about the Chicago Cubs’ 1984 pennant drive or the relative merits of restaurants in Illinois.
Former Majority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.) may be right, however. Television, by forcing the Senate to tighten up its act, may work the most dramatic improvements since the 1913 constitutional amendment requiring that senators be elected by the public instead of state legislatures.
Or, Sen. William Proxmire (D-Wis.) may prove to be correct. The cameras could reduce Senate proceedings to “a vaudeville act.”
Whatever the outcome, the Senate probably will never be the same. Although today’s debut in the nation’s living rooms begins what is officially only a six-week test, the Senate seems unlikely to retreat after this first gingerly brush with the electronic era, particularly if coverage of the first big show, the floor debate of sweeping tax-overhaul legislation, is a hit.
C-SPAN (Cable Satellite Public Affairs Network), which already carries House proceedings, is finding that many cable systems--including those in Southern California, its biggest market--are leery of adding an extra channel of gavel-to-gavel Senate coverage. The Senate seems certain, however, to receive broad new exposure as excerpts appear on network news programs and--more importantly--on local newscasts in the senators’ home states.
“It’s a no-lose proposition for the senators,” said Stephen Hess, a Brookings Institution expert on media coverage of the Senate. “You could call it an incumbents’ protection act.”
Besides helping the senators keep their jobs, non-stop television coverage could shape the reputations of the bumper crop of potential presidential candidates who occupy more than a dozen of the 100 antique desks in the Senate chamber.
‘Abuse of Institution’
“You could well take this body . . . and make it into a forum for presidential candidates,” Sen. John C. Stennis (D-Miss.) said. “Something like that would be a strong abuse of television. . . . It would be an abuse of the Senate as an institution.”
Advocates of television coverage counter that being under the glare of TV lights will improve the quality of Senate debate and hold up to public criticism those maverick senators who obstruct its proceedings. “I hope some of those who have used that semi-darkened chamber for their various antics . . . will kind of have to retool themselves,” said Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.), the Senate’s second-ranking Republican.
Television “probably will at first slow and ultimately speed up action,” added California’s Sen. Alan Cranston, who is No. 2 in the Senate’s Democratic leadership.
The income tax revision bill, scheduled for debate this week, will provide the first big test of television’s impact: Although the legislation will be subject to a blizzard of special-interest amendments, Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.) predicted that no senator, with millions of Americans watching, will dare try to protect corporate tax breaks.
The Senate has given its television system a dry run the past month, by closed circuit from its recording studio, a Capitol basement corner that was originally a public bathhouse. It has spent $1.2 million so far on equipment, including six remote-control cameras, and expects eventually to lay out $3.5 million if it votes to make the system permanent.
Although by most accounts, the test run has gone smoothly, it has already wrought visible changes--including a much-noted proliferation of telegenic navy blue suits, blue shirts and red ties in senators’ wardrobes. An internal memo to the senators from the recording studio advises that “white shirts . . . are not as good as blue shirts but are acceptable” on camera, and that the popular seersucker suit is “really bad.”
Some senators and staff members confided that they suspect at least three senators of having dyed their hair to more youthful shades in the last few months. “It’s kind of startling,” said one senator who spoke on the condition he not be named.
Other senators have little to dye. Proxmire, who had a hair transplant in 1972, said that the cameras, mounted overhead, zero in mercilessly on “those of us who do not have as much hair as we’d like. All the television viewers see is this head of skin, and that gets pretty boring.”
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flattering angle, some senators To position their heads at a more Even harder on viewers than long speeches may be the time the Senate spends doing nothing.
podiums on their desks as they read their speeches.
Both Democrats and Republicans have quietly made professional television consultants available to their senators, although one senator said: “I would guess that those who sought their services probably wouldn’t let that be known.”
The image-conscious Senate of today has come a long way from its early years, when it barred the public from the ornate chamber. Even after the doors were opened, the Senate for years prohibited reporters from taking notes during its proceedings.
This relative privacy has fostered an unreserved, even clubby atmosphere. If cameras had been around in 1902, viewers could have been treated to the last fistfight in the Senate chamber. If the voters could have tuned in the all-night sessions of the 1950s, they would have seen their lawmakers padding into the chamber in pajamas and bathrobes to cast their votes.
But a new generation of senators, many of whom won their seats by campaigning skillfully and vigorously on television, had less regard for the traditions that shielded the Senate from what Sen. J. Bennett Johnston (D-La.) called “the intrusive eye of the camera.”
Another force also helped to wear down Senate resistance: competition from the House, which has been broadcasting its proceedings since 1979.
Television has increased the visibility back home of individual House members, some of whom have an unpleasant tendency to challenge incumbent senators for their jobs. Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), a one-time opponent of Senate television who ultimately became a leading backer of the idea, said he feared that the Senate was “fast becoming the invisible half of Congress.”
Few in the House regret the decision to televise their daily business. “I don’t think it had any negative effects,” said Rep. Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.), the assistant majority leader, although he complained that TV has given the dissenters in the House a national audience. “They’d be talking to themselves if it wasn’t for television,” Foley said.
Congressional scholar Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute has found that television has “improved the quality of debate in the House” and predicted similar results in the Senate.
He said that television could bring to the Senate floor some of the drama that in past years has been staged in Senate committees. Indeed, television has carried from the committee room into the living room some of the Senate’s most vivid and history-shaping moments: the Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954, the Foreign Relations Committee hearings on the Vietnam War in 1966, and the 1974 Watergate investigation headed by the late Sen. Sam J. Ervin Jr. (D-N.C.).
For more mundane business, however, Foley said that television is probably better suited to the House, where the rules generally limit speakers to five minutes each and hold debate to a tight schedule. “With the obvious exception of very important speeches, the public attention span may not be as long as senatorial speech-making,” Foley said.
When the Senate approved the experiment with television, Senate leaders tried to change the rules to make it easier to block a filibuster. But the senators chose to cling to their old prerogatives, and the adage attributed to the late Sen. Richard B. Russell (D-Ga.) still applies: “Once a senator has taken the floor, only God can take him off.”
What may be even harder on the viewers than long speeches is the large share of time that the Senate spends doing nothing.
A recent study by Sen. David H. Pryor (D-Ark.) found that, in the last two years, the Senate has spent 23% of its time on “quorum calls,” in which a clerk slowly calls the roll in a virtually empty chamber. Officially, it is a parliamentary procedure to summon senators to the floor, but in practice it is merely a device for using up time--often many hours--while senators argue behind the scenes over what to do.
Fearing how the public would react to seeing a vacant chamber hour after hour, the Senate agreed not to televise quorum calls. Instead, it will broadcast a written explanation that a quorum call is in progress, perhaps with classical music in the background.
The Senate spends another 11% of its time, Pryor’s study found, trying to round up scattered members for votes, and this exercise will be televised. During voting roll calls, however, senators will continue to shout “aye” or “nay” from wherever they happen to be. They adamantly rejected a proposal that they obey a rule that they must be at their desks when they vote.
Cable operators apparently have their doubts about the Senate’s ability to hold an audience. “We’ve had a lot of resistance to the second channel,” said C-SPAN Chairman Brian P. Lamb.
C-SPAN, a nonprofit cooperative, charges cable systems 4 cents a month per subscriber for its initial channel, which carries House proceedings, and it will throw in the Senate channel free to its current customers who want it. Many cable operators have alloted all their channels, and would have to eliminate a station to make room for C-SPAN II.
Enthusiasm Picking Up
With increased interest in the coming tax debate, however, “the enthusiasm of the cable industry has picked up dramatically in the last few days,” Lamb said. He said that C-SPAN has signed up cable operators with 6.5 million subscribers, compared to the 25 million viewers who have access to C-SPAN’s original channel. The Senate debate will be aired on the House channel today, when the House will not be in session, and will appear on the new channel Tuesday.
Although Southern California accounts for 10% of C-SPAN’s present market and almost 20% of the responses to its call-in shows, none of the biggest cable systems in Los Angeles have offered to carry the channel. “None of these people have said whether they are going to do it or not,” Lamb said. “They just haven’t given us an answer.”
Among those that will carry the extra channel are cable systems in Anaheim, Glendale, Burbank, Garden Grove and San Diego.