Ever since the U.S. Senate recently decided, after prolonged and anxious debate, to open its proceedings to the unrelenting glare of television, the air around Capitol Hill has been filled with weighty and contradictory predictions of the consequences.
On the one hand are some, including former Sen. Howard Baker (R--Tenn.), who forecast that televising of the Senate, which begins on an experimental basis June 1, will have greater beneficial impact on that body than any event since the changeover to direct election of its members. On the other side are those who fear that the intrusion of the electronic eye will encourage senators to indulge in excessive showboating, thus undermining institutional dignity and efficiency.
But on the evidence provided in Stephen Hess' analysis of how the national media cover the Senate and James A. Miller's journal of five Senate days in April, 1983, the prognosticators of gloom and of grandeur are both wrong. What these books show us, in their different ways, is that the Senate is driven and controlled by internal and often relatively parochial forces, linked to what senators see as their own political survival. These priorities seem to assure nothing more than marginal impact for television.
Baker, who was a leading advocate of opening the Senate's doors to television during his tenure as Republican leader and who happens to be the chief protagonist of Miller's book, recently told a group of reporters that the television cameras would reduce the senators' emphasis on committee work and restore the Senate to its place as "a great national forum." But the reasons for the increased stress on committee work have to do with profound changes in the political system in recent years, in particular, the steady erosion of the ability of the political parties to formulate cohesive national goals for their elected members. The net result is a fragmented system, ruled by the disparate agendas and personalities of individual office holders, under which senators and the press tend to pay increasing attention to the committees that serve as natural outlets for their overspecialization.
All this is manifest in both books. One Democratic Senate aide, frustrated by her inability to get members of her party to speak to the press on national issues, tells Hess that "the Senate is primarily a local place designed for local consumption." Another staffer says of the deliberations of Democratic senators: "All they talk about is local politics or Senate politics such as, 'Don't make us vote on that or it will kill me.' "
Nor is the view much loftier from the Republican side of the aisle, as demonstrated by Miller's chronicle, told mostly from the viewpoint of Baker. Though the Senate docket is crammed with momentous controversies--immigration, Central America and the budget--the issue that seems to arouse the most passion is the leadership's inability to arrange things so that the Senate will be able to take two months off that summer instead of only one. When Baker passes this disappointing word to his Republican colleagues, author Miller reports, "it is enough to curdle non-dairy coffee creamer."
But if the Senate's pervasive self-absorption seems to make it unlikely that television can help it regain the Olympian levels at which it once supposedly operated, these books should also allay concerns that regular video coverage will enhance the status of senators more skilled at showmanship than statesmanship. Hess' well-documented findings indicate that the media tend to ignore the "blow-dried" types in favor of those who carry most of the workload and exert most of the influence--the "ultimate insiders" of Hess' title. Likewise, the pretty much business-as-usual performance of the House of Representatives during seven years on camera suggests that Senate proceedings will not be seriously distorted by television.
Both authors have to cope with difficulties inherent in their formats. For Hess, a Brookings Institution fellow, the problem is posed by the tedious compilations of figures--how many cameras cover which committee hearings, for example--that this type of social science research encourages. Still, the statistics take on value because of Hess' ability to make political sense of them, a skill honed by his service in the Eisenhower and Nixon White Houses.
The obstacles confronting Miller, a former Baker aide, grow out of his "I-am-a-camera" approach and are more difficult to surmount; many of the interior Senate events he recounts might better go unrecorded. After one particularly dreary caucus, Miller describes Baker, who has already announced his retirement, as "imagining the happy day when he won't have to attend meetings like this . . . any more." Unfortunately, a good many readers will find Baker's reaction only too easy to understand and may choose themselves to switch on the television set--to any station not covering the Senate.