WASHINGTON — Nelson A. Rockefeller's swearing-in as the nation's 41st vice president in 1974 provided a footnote in Capitol Hill history: It was the only occasion when television cameras were allowed inside the hallowed chamber of the U.S. Senate. The klieg lights made the room unmercifully hot.
Today, the heat is on again as the Senate considers whether to allow TV cameras to record the daily workings of "the world's greatest deliberative body." The debate is tearing at the historic fiber of the 196-year-old institution as it braces for its almost inevitable leap into the electronic age.
Advocates say television coverage would promote more enlightened floor debate and streamline 18th-Century procedures that often leave the Senate bogged down in endless roll-call votes and interminable filibusters. And television would increase senators' visibility among the voting public.
Senate Show Business
Opponents say television cameras would--if such is possible--increase the public posturing of the 100 senators and give them even more encouragement to pursue their own narrow causes. In short, it would bring show business to the Senate.
But both sides agree that the Senate, which in its early years barred the public from its proceedings altogether, would never be the same.
"We still have that hang-up of leaving the old Senate we love (untouched), with its traditions, its customs and its history," says Senate Minority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), a recent convert to television coverage. "But the best way to perpetuate the old Senate is simply to dress it up to the new age."
The Senate last month edged closer to letting in the television cameras when the Senate Rules Committee approved closed-circuit telecasts of the Senate floor to congressional offices for a test period. The full Senate must approve the test before it begins, but more than 60 senators have already expressed support for televising the Senate by one approach or another.
The Senate is already more than six years behind the House of Representatives, which began televising its floor proceedings in March, 1979, after six years of debate. With cameras controlled by House staff, unedited, live, gavel-to-gavel sessions appear on C-SPAN, the Cable Satellite Public Affairs Network.
In the House, the television cameras triggered more speeches and posturing by some members. It provided a forum for young Republican mavericks such as Reps. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and Robert S. Walker (R-Pa.) to promote their agenda. "They wanted to increase partisanship to get away from the kind of club atmosphere that had characterized the House," says Austin Ranney, a political scientist at the American Enterprise Institute.
'Much More Careful'
If House proceedings became more partisan, however, they also gained a new aura of propriety. "Television has made people much more careful when they come to the floor," says Norman Ornstein, a congressional specialist at the American Enterprise Institute. "They don't want to look like fools. It's my sense that debate is crisper and better informed."
And House members have gained increasing public prominence, a fact that has not gone unnoticed in the Senate.
"Senators feel they are getting hurt in the eyes of the American people," says C-SPAN Chairman Brian P. Lamb. "When they return to their districts, they are asked why they are not on television."
C-SPAN reaches 21.5 million households, Lamb says, with "heavy viewership" in Southern California. If the Senate allows the cameras in, C-SPAN plans to carry gavel-to-gavel Senate floor proceedings on a second satellite channel.
Kefauver TV Hearings
Years ago, ironically, the Senate was more receptive than the House to televising its committee hearings. Investigative hearings by Sen. Estes Kefauver (D-Tenn.) on organized crime in 1951 won an Emmy and provided him a springboard for several unsuccessful attempts at the Democratic presidential nomination. House Democratic leaders, meanwhile, banned television cameras from its hearings, a prohibition that remained in effect from 1952 to 1970, except for two years in the 1950s when the Republicans controlled the House.
At the same time, the Senate was moving closer to allowing broadcasts not only from its hearing rooms but from the floor of the Senate chamber itself. In 1978, it allowed National Public Radio to broadcast its floor debate on the Panama Canal treaties. But Rockefeller's 15-minute ceremony was as far as the television cameras got.
To the opponents, television cameras threaten all the traditions that make the 196-year-old institution unique.
The Senate, with 100 members elected for six years each, was intended to have fewer formal procedures than the 435-member House to obstruct freewheeling debate. It did not allow the public into its chambers in its first seven years and used to bar reporters from taking notes in the chamber. Even microphones for the senator who has the floor are a recent addition.