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House Seeks to Make a Point With TV Debates, Oxford-Style


WASHINGTON — OK, C-SPAN insomniacs, get a good grip on your remote controls. Beginning Wednesday, you will see something unusual on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives: an authentic Oxford-style debate, unsullied by cheap sound bites, in which politicians attempt to discuss the most pressing issues of the day.

Say what?

"As hard as it may be for some people to believe it, many members of Congress are as disappointed with the general level of debate around here as the viewing public is," a House leadership aide said.

The debate, the first of three to be broadcast live on the third Wednesday of every month after the House has adjourned for the day, will give both sides a chance to present the philosophical positions that underlie the mumbo jumbo of legislative floor tactics.

Floor arguments over legislation generally do not reach those broader issues, explained Rep. Robert S. Walker of Pennsylvania, a member of the GOP leadership who is helping to organize the debates.

"Too often our floor debates are about the technical aspects of legislation," Walker said. "The public tunes in and hears people talking not about the issues but about Section 401C of a particular bill."

Based on the rules of the Oxford University Political Union, each four-member team will make an opening statement that will be followed by individual arguments and cross-examination by the other side. Guided by a moderator, the debate will volley back and forth until the closing statements.

The 90-minute debates are the second step that Democratic and Republican leaders have taken to improve the image of Congress that millions of viewers see courtesy of the Cable Satellite Public Affairs Network.

The first, taken last month, was a bipartisan agreement to prohibit C-SPAN's cameras from showing how empty the House chamber usually is during Special Orders, the period at the end of each legislative day when lawmakers can make speeches about issues of their choosing.

C-SPAN devotees may be watching those after-hour discourses, but few members of Congress are. The leadership thought that the practice of panning the chamber to reveal row after row of empty seats was giving viewers the "misimpression that nobody around here does any work," the aide said.

If they prove popular, the formal Oxford-style debates could end up polishing Congress' tarnished public image, analysts agree.

"It will be an effort to have Congress try to present itself to the public in a way that is ennobling, rather than demeaning," said Thomas E. Mann, director of governmental studies at the Brookings Institution.

Noting that legislative rules often "preclude serious debates from happening" on the House floor, Mann added that the Oxford-style format should "let the public see that it's not all special interests and getting elected, that matters of high interest and principle" are also a part of the legislative agenda.

Wednesday's debate is on health care, a topic chosen by the Democrats who won the first toss of the coin. Debaters on the Democratic side will be Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, Henry A. Waxman of Los Angeles, Pete Stark of Oakland and Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut. For the Republicans, arguments will be made by Minority Whip Newt Gingrich of Georgia, Bill Thomas of Bakersfield, Nancy L. Johnson of Connecticut and Thomas J. Bliley Jr. of Virginia.

Republicans will choose the subject of the second debate, which Walker said, will either be welfare or crime.

Details of the third debate are not final, although it is expected to mix Democrats and Republicans on two bipartisan teams to discuss a foreign policy issue.

"It will be quite different from what we normally do in Congress," Waxman said. "I never saw myself as a great debater," he added, "but we have an historic opportunity to enact health care reform and the public should hear what the broader issues are."

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