C-SPAN pushes to ‘liberalize’ House floor feed after lengthy, drama-filled speaker battle

You never know what you’re missing. That is, until you find out what you’re missing. Then, you’re missing it. And the American public now knows it’s not getting the entire picture of what happens in Congress.

That’s because C-SPAN and other news organizations showed everything on the House floor during the lengthy election for speaker earlier this month.

Then, the special feed disappeared.

Almost everyone referred to the cameras inside the House chamber as “C-SPAN cameras” prior to the speaker vote.

But many congressional observers now know that the typical cameras in the House chamber don’t belong to C-SPAN after the intense, razor’s-edge, operatic quality of the speaker’s race that dragged on for five days.

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The House Recording Studio controls the cameras in the chamber trained on the House floor. C-SPAN and other news organizations are only allowed to shoot inside the chamber on the first day of a new Congress, and during the State of the Union and a few other special occasions. C-SPAN just takes the feed, wall-to-wall.

Rarely had there been such intense scrutiny focused on the House of Representatives prior to the first week of January as lawmakers struggled to elect a speaker.

Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., speaks with Reps. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, and Chip Roy, R-Texas, on the House floor on the second day of voting for House speaker.

Because there was no speaker, there were no real rules in the House chamber. That includes how news organizations cover the floor. Thus, C-SPAN hauled several cameras into the chamber. Photographers roamed around the mezzanine gallery above, shooting still photographs.

And now that the body has a speaker, the House reverted to its old rules of shooting floor action.

The House only flips on the cameras when the body gavels into session. The shots inside the chamber rotate from a series of fixed cameras that are trained on the presiding officer on the dais, House members when they speak from lecterns in the well and the bill managers who speak from desks on both sides of the aisle. There are no “reaction shots.” The only time the cameras pull back to reveal a swath of the House is when members are voting. You might see the expanse of the House chamber from two cameras mounted high atop the chamber.

The shots toggle between those two shots during roll call votes, alternating from the Democratic side and the Republican side of the chamber. The House may also show the full dais and well while waiting for a member to speak or if the body is waiting for something from the chair.

And that’s about it.

The shots are mechanical. Orderly. Structured. The cameras only focus on the formal utterances from the House floor. The very words and phrases the House will enter into the Congressional Record.

Rep. Kat Cammack, R-Fla., accused Democrats of bringing popcorn, booze and blankets to the House floor during her nomination speech for Kevin McCarthy.
(Win McNamee)

However, the shots only reveal a sliver of what’s really going down on the floor.

That is both the beauty. And the curse.

The nice thing about the reaction shots is that they show you what is really unfolding on the House floor. Who is talking with whom. Who’s leaning on the back rail, waiting for a conversation with the whip. Who is in play on a key vote. You also see very revealing shots such as House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Ala., barreling toward Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla. Or Gaetz wagging his finger at Kevin McCarthy just before the California Republican finally secured the necessary votes to win the speaker’s election.

Rep. Matt Gaetz talked to Rep. Kevin McCarthy after Gaetz voted “present” in the House chamber during the election for speaker.
(Alex Brandon)

The downside is that it’s easy to focus on everything else – besides the actual speeches or instructions by the speaker pro tempore from the dais.

However, sometimes that’s where the action is. And it’s better to listen to the actual speeches and debate than pay attention to who is sitting next to one another or who is having a whispered conversation back by the cloakroom door.

Republicans won control of the House in 1994. The GOP victory marked the first time Republicans would control the chamber in four decades. The Republican win also represented the first time the party would hold the House majority since the institution introduced cameras in 1979. That’s the year C-SPAN went on the air, devoted to covering House proceedings, uninterrupted, gavel-to-gavel. C-SPAN simply took the feed from the House floor and showed the entirety of the House session for the day.

Republicans promised to run the House differently when they got the majority in 1994. Among their pledges: transparency in government.

C-SPAN founder and CEO Brian Lamb saw an opening. He fired off a letter to incoming House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan. Since Republicans promised more transparency in government – and less government intrusion – then why not allow C-SPAN to televise the House and Senate proceedings and pick the shots they wanted. C-SPAN even devised a plan to provide this cinematic feed to all news organizations.

The proposal went nowhere.

However, for a short period, Gingrich directed the formal House cameras to show reaction shots. Pictures of lawmakers talking. Sometimes reading the paper. Not listening. Even snoozing.

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And after lots of complaints from lawmakers, Gingrich and House GOPers nixed the extra shots. The House feed reverted to the rote sequence of shots you see today.

The House flipped to Democratic control in 2006. C-SPAN made a similar appeal to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to allow it to shoot the House sessions.

Nothing.

The House went back to GOP control in 2010. C-SPAN again wrote to House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.

Crickets.

Democrats and Pelosi won control of the chamber in 2018. You know what happened.

Now, McCarthy is on the scene after the House switched control in the 2022 midterms. There is more energy behind this movement to “liberalize” the House feed than ever before considering the plaudits C-SPAN earned covering the speaker’s race.

C-SPAN CEO Susan Swain wrote to McCarthy.

“The public, press, and Member reaction to C-SPAN’s coverage — along with the ‘transparency’ themes in your new rules package — have encouraged us to resubmit a request we have made to your predecessors without success,” wrote Swain.

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy celebrated after taking the oath of office on Jan. 7, 2022.
(Nathan Posner/Anadolu Agency)

Swain says C-SPAN isn’t interested in “replacing the existing House Recording System.” Swain says C-SPAN would blend shots from the House cameras with its own cameras “to create a second, journalistic product.”

It’s unclear if anything will change with coverage from the House floor. But now the public knows something is going on behind the scenes. That’s because of the protracted speaker’s race.

There’s a more robust push to open up the House chamber video than ever before.

Public interest in what’s unfolding on the House floor will subside somewhat as Congress deals with quotidian bills to name post offices and adopt other below-the-radar resolutions.

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But wait until Congress is wrestling with the debt ceiling or averting a government shutdown. That’s when the clamor for candid video inside the House chamber will intensify. And it’s all because everyone now knows what they’re missing.