Senate debuts on live TV
The dress rehearsal is over. For the past month, closed-circuit television coverage of Senate proceedings has given senators the chance to adjust to cameras in the chamber.
But beginning at 2 p.m. EDT today, live gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Senate's doings will be available to millions of American homes hooked up to C-SPAN, the cable television network which has been carrying House proceedings for the past seven years.
The TV debut was preceeded by intense debate on the issue. As it stands, the senators still have six weeks to decide whether to make TV coverage permanent.
Some believe blanket coverage of Senate debates could subtly influence the shape of major pieces of legislation, such as the tax-reform bill.
Observers have argued that lawmakers might have a harder time supporting some legislation under the glare of the television lights. Likewise, they have said, bills popular with voters might pick up extra support on the Senate floor because of TV coverage. ``It is going to make it harder to pass bad bills,'' says Norman Ornstein, a congressional analyst with the American Enterprise Institute.
Others say the presence of TV cameras over the past month has only influenced senators to wear more red ties. ``Frankly, I don't think it's going to make any difference,'' says Sen. Bob Packwood (R) of Oregon, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and a key figure in the tax-reform debate. ``I haven't seen anyone acting differently.''
A few think television cameras could change the character of the ``world's greatest deliberative body.'' ``We're going to see a lot better preparation for debates and floor speeches,'' says Sen. Spark M. Matsunaga (D) of Hawaii.
Many wonder who will bother to watch. Even if senators vote for permanent coverage, few congressional observers expect Senate proceedings to be as pervasive in America's living rooms as ``Leave it to Beaver'' reruns.
C-SPAN deliberately avoids charting how many viewers watch its House proceedings, but they say the figure is probably not very high. Television news outlets, lobbyists, and government officials appear to be the chief devotees of the coverage.
Casual television viewers may have a more difficult time with the Senate. In the House, rules insure someone is almost always doing something on the floor while the body is in session. But Senate procedures are guided by a patchwork of customs and rules to allow senators great leeway in shaping legislation. This does not necessarily make for good footage.
For example, a favorite delaying tactic in the Senate is the quorom call, during which the names of all 100 senators are read at foot-dragging pace while lawmakers haggle in a back room over some point of legislative contention.
In this case, there is nothing to watch. Last year the Senate spent spent a third of its time in quorum calls.
In order to gather the necessary votes to approve the TV coverage, the Senate adopted some rule changes, both to make the Senate work better and to help shape it up for televsion.
Nevertheless, procedural eccentricities such as the quorom call remain largely intact.