We had some heady days there as C-SPAN's viewers got to see the whole sordid process of Republican House Speaker-for-Now Kevin McCarthy selling off his every limb and organ in order to achieve his childhood dream of being a disembodied head beholden to an American sedition movement. Seeing McCarthy and other Republicans humiliate themselves repeatedly on the House floor was exciting, at least by political standards.
The excitement was enhanced by C-SPAN's ability to show not just the single speechifying blatherer holding forth at the House microphones, but reaction shots showing how thoroughly many of these lawmakers despise each other. There were shots of legislative huddles as lawmakers attempted to coax others into unknown deals. (Since lawmakers didn't wear microphones, we could only guess at what most were saying.) And of course, shots of somebody finally getting so tired of listening to Rep. Matt Coke Party Sex Trafficker Gaetz that they tried to patriotically throttle the lying, slick-haired mega-perv.
Sure, reporters in the gallery could still have told us that Gaetz finally went far enough for one of the typically sex crimes-forgiving House Republicans to take a lunge at him, but the video tells the better story. In all cases, when it came to the sheer exasperation of House Republicans at the demands being made by (mostly) their most coup-supporting members, the video told the better story. And that's got pundits and C-SPAN viewers alike clamoring for better C-SPAN camera access during the rest of the House's business.
Why on earth is Congress denying us a tool that can turn even its work into something vaguely interesting? Shouldn't camera-hog House members be jumping at the chance?
As C-SPAN itself has been explaining, it's not quite accurate to say that C-SPAN was given free rein to show lawmaker activity on the House floor because there were "no rules" until the House selected a speaker and voted for a new rules package. It's been standing tradition that network "pool" access is granted for special House events like joint sessions, major speeches, and ceremonial activities like the first day's speaker vote and swearings-in. It just happens that on this particular ceremonial first day of the new Congress, the first day's activities spanned multiple freaking days as House Republicans fought each other in ever-shifting efforts to procure every last one of McCarthy's vertebrae.
So the "pool" rules continued to apply, and cameras were there to capture the not-so-ceremonial action. Once the actual ceremony part had finally been ceremonied, C-SPAN had to pack up and return to government-operated cameras only. That means the cameras and microphones are aimed only at the lawmaker who currently has speech privileges. No "reaction" shots of lawmakers. No close-ups of lawmakers in conversation, or vaping, or secretly drinking, or fiddling with their phones.
Lawmakers on both sides have responded by asking that the rules be changed to allow C-SPAN to fully cover what's happening on the floor, and C-SPAN leaders have been using the opportunity to again press for a freedom they've been asking for for decades now.
Here's the thing, though: There's no reason not to do it. And there're plenty of reasons we should see better footage from the House and Senate floors as a public right.
These are people working on the clock to pass bills meant to spend our money, criminalize or decriminalize our behaviors, and determine how the United States will develop as a nation in the coming years and decades. In an era when employers are mounting cameras in cubicle hells and installing monitoring software on low-level underlings (but never, of course, in the executive suites), it seems rather more obvious that elected, government-paid top public officials might expect that work done on the floor of the House would indeed be publicly accessible.
Reporters are already in the gallery reporting on goings-on. The public is already allowed in the gallery to observe all of this for themselves. At the very least, the Walt Disney rules would apply: C-SPAN cameras should be allowed to record anything an observant gallery viewer could see for their own damn selves. The same logic still applies to the Supreme Court as well. This is supposed to be public debate, so where's the debating? This is supposed to be our own government's top officials holding forth on whether or not, for example, your own marriage should be allowed or condemned. We, uh, don't have the right to peek in on that?
By what logic?
The longstanding House fear has been that seeing lawmakers in their, ahem, natural habitat will make lawmakers look bad. This is almost certainly true, because at least 70% of all House members are people who look worse the more you hear from them. There's a reason those people already dodge constituent town halls and get genuinely offended when somebody records their words at high-dollar fundraisers not meant to be made public; nobody, anywhere, has ever said "Matt Gaetz isn't so bad once you get to know him," or. "Jim Jordan is a very serious person when he's not showboating for the cameras."
Representatives might be worried about their public image if cameras were able to record what it is they actually do while supposedly engaged in "discussion and debate" with each other, but blocking public access on the grounds that it will make our on-the-clock lawmakers look bad is not by itself a compelling argument.
A more compelling argument might be an expectation that if cameras were allowed to record member reactions and discussions, it would quickly turn into yet another ring of the partisan circus as the most performatively outrageous "lawmakers" intentionally engage in behavior meant to catch the cameras. We can easily imagine Jordan, for example, doing cartwheels down the aisles in an attempt to distract the public from a Democrat's speech about the sexual abuse of athletes. We might see a new flowering of the oft-ridiculous giant poster boards prepared by members for speeches, but this time deployed in the aisles as silent responses to whoever's talking.
Put a camera on a public official when they're supposed to be working and you'll get either resentment or a circus, depending on who the camera is aimed at. So the House would have to (cough) ensure members adhered to some base standard of decorum. No taking your pants off on the House floor; no animalistic screeching to disrupt the lawmaker currently at the microphones.
These rules are already generally in place, however, and the only difference in allowing cameras would be new accountability when it could be proved to the public that something of the sort happened. In order for behavior to actually degrade, new rules would have to be instituted allowing it to degrade. It's on House leadership, or at least the floating torso-less head of the newly elected speaker, if lawmakers want to make it a circus.
The most not-so-secret secret of the House is that through most of the workday, the only members actually on the House floor are the ones either currently speechifying or waiting their turn at it. The C-SPAN cameras already show a mostly empty floor when a new member takes the microphone for themselves. The modern House floor is a place of prepackaged theater, not a place for actual discussion or debate; all such dealmaking is done in committee rooms and behind closed doors, with the only exceptions being pivotal moments when the leadership of one or both parties has done something so drastically inept that the performance collapses and every actor is left scrambling to come up with their next lines.
A cynical person might observe that the reason C-SPAN's request to allow nongoverment-controlled recordings of what happens on the House floor is getting a boost from some lawmakers right now is not just because the Republican battle over McCarthy's planned speakership was an unusually exciting shit show. It’s also because all signs point to the next two years being an unending series of similar shit shows as a largely impotent Republican majority battles more and more outrageous demands from the party's well-stocked barrel of crackpots.
That is absolutely 100% true, and everybody knows it. C-SPAN wants in on it. The cable networks want in on it. Everybody wants in on it—except for many of the people those cameras would be pointing at.
That's still no reason to keep the status quo. The incompetence or self-serving belligerence or secret day-drinking of individual lawmakers is not something that ought to be hidden from public view when it happens, and it's only the power of incompetent self-servers that's been keeping the current bans in place. Sooner or later elected officials are going to have to suck it up and show us what it is they really do on the public dime.
After all, if you’re already doing this:
Then you’ve pretty much lost your argument before it’s begun. Sean Hannity gets more broadcasting rights than C-SPAN does?
C-SPAN's cameras have been enjoying free rein and the American people are better off for it
Stunning images captured of GOP lawmakers scrambling during House speaker vote