C-SPAN gave us 'America's Hottest TV Drama' as McCarthy struggled to become House speaker. Lawmakers aren't so sure that's a good thing.

  • In Politics
  • 2023-01-27 11:00:00Z
  • By Business Insider
The public got an unfettered view of lawmakers’ deliberations as the House struggled for four straight days to elect a speaker earlier this month.
The public got an unfettered view of lawmakers’ deliberations as the House struggled for four straight days to elect a speaker earlier this month.  
  • C-SPAN offered the public an unparalleled view of the chaos of McCarthy's speaker election.

  • House rules didn't apply at the time, and C-SPAN was given free reign to film inside the chamber.

  • But lawmakers are conflicted on whether they would want to permanently grant that access.

Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York says she's "totally open to the idea" of offering the public a wider view into the deliberations of the House of Representatives.

But she's also wary of the cost that could come with giving C-SPAN cameras free reign to film lawmakers on the House floor, particularly given the lightning-rod role she's come to occupy within American politics.

"I think it could make conversations on the floor more difficult," Ocasio-Cortez told Insider at the Capitol this week. "I've had members tell me on the floor, 'this is the only place I can have a conversation with you, because if there was ever a photo of me speaking with you anywhere else, like, that'd be over.'"

Earlier this month, the world was treated to a rare spectacle in the chamber: four straight days of wrangling over Kevin McCarthy's bid for speaker, all with unfettered coverage from cameras operated by C-SPAN. Without any formal rules in place - the House must elect a speaker before it can move on to any other business, including a rules package - all aspects of the ordeal were shown in plain view.

Lawmakers themselves felt different ways about it.

"I think that week of the speaker's vote was really interesting," said Ocasio-Cortez. "I think it makes what happens here a lot more engaging, and easier to follow for people at home."

"The only thing I liked about it was the bad lip reading videos that came out," said Republican Rep. Dan Crenshaw of Texas, referring to a series of videos from the House floor where lawmakers' conversations were humorously dubbed with false dialogue. "Those were awesome."

As is customary, the cameras were removed soon after McCarthy was elected speaker. Now, the House floor is once again the sole domain of cameras operated by the House Recording Studio, whose handful of pre-designated angles offer a far more limited view into the workings of the chamber.

Some lawmakers have since expressed their support for permanently granting C-SPAN the ability to film in the chamber, laying the groundwork for even more of what The Hollywood Reporter dubbed "America's Hottest TV Drama in 2023."

Democratic Rep. Mark Pocan of Wisconsin introduced a resolution to do just that, while Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida - the star of much of that week's drama - has offered an amendment to House rules to do so.

And C-SPAN itself sent a letter to McCarthy asking for continued access.

But even Gaetz isn't holding his breath on this - the decision ultimately lies with McCarthy, whose office did not respond to Insider's request for comment on this matter.

"The leadership would have to schedule it for a vote," said Gaetz. "I wish they would."

Ilhan Omar, Matt Gaetz
Ilhan Omar, Matt Gaetz  

A conundrum over congressional cameras

In interviews with Insider at the Capitol this week, some lawmakers expressed reservations about the idea, arguing it could lead to more political theater and make bipartisan conversations difficult.

"What, do you want to mic us up too?" asked Crenshaw, sarcastically adding: "If you're looking for political entertainment - which most people are - then sure, why not?"

One long-serving Democratic lawmaker professed to have not thought about the issue at all - only to voice his opposition once granted anonymity by Insider, arguing that it would make it harder for members of opposite parties to speak in confidence with each other on the floor.

Another Democratic lawmaker, also insisting on anonymity, said her opinion was informed by the late Republican Rep. Don Young of Alaska, who served in Congress before cameras were brought in and once declared them to be "probably the worst thing that happened" to Congress. "People then perform to the cameras," the Democratic lawmaker said.

"Part of my work is proofreading something, or writing notes on something, and the idea that now cameras are going to zoom in on, like, what do I have on my phone?" the lawmaker said. "I don't want people knowing what I'm reading."

In one notable moment, cameras in the House chamber photographed former Speaker Nancy Pelosi reading a New Yorker article about McCarthy's political ambitions.

Others dismissed concerns that cameras could make things more difficult for members.

"I think members of Congress are all adults," said Rep. Ted Lieu of California, the vice chair of the Democratic caucus. "We can handle having increased C-SPAN on the floor."

Rep. Nancy Pelosi reading a New Yorker article about Kevin McCarthy on the House floor on January 4, 2023.AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
Rep. Nancy Pelosi reading a New Yorker article about Kevin McCarthy on the House floor on January 4, 2023.AP Photo/Andrew Harnik  

Some argued that the footage of lawmakers working together humanizes them.

"When cameras were allowed, you didn't see Republicans and Democrats scurrying to their respective corners, concerned that they would be filmed speaking to a colleague," said Gaetz. "In fact, I think the country got to see some of the warm human interactions that do happen here every day."

"If we're coming to a point in this country that a Democrat talking to a Republican - or a Republican talking to a Democrat, causes controversy on C-SPAN, this country's in real trouble," said Democratic Rep. Debbie Dingell of Michigan.

Worries about cameras in Congress have apparently existed for decades, ever since they were first installed in the 1970s.

"The original argument was, if you insert cameras, the behavior of the members changed," said Democratic Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California. "That is absolutely the case."

But Lofgren said she was supportive of permanently allowing C-SPAN cameras into the chamber, arguing in essence that the cat's already out of the bag.

"Now that you've got cameras there, I think, why shouldn't they see more?" she said.


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