Just after midnight Saturday was Kevin McCarthy finally elected speaker of the house by his Republican colleagues, after an astonishing 14 previous failed rounds of voting. The incident didn’t just set one spotlight on the division and dysfunction in the GOP.
It also highlighted, after many extended, dramatic voices, how rare it is for the public to actually see the work of Congress live, inspiring calls to give C-SPAN more control over its cameras inside the House.
As the House struggled to resume normal business, cameras from C-SPAN, the nonprofit public affairs network backed by major cable companies, captured all kinds of remarkable scenes.
In one case, commentators noted a surprising cordial exchange between Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Paul Gosar, an Arizona Republican who once posted a violent, anime-like parody video showing him killing the New York representative.
Another C-SPAN clip captured a conversation between Mr. McCarthy and Matt Gaetz, one of the main opponents of his speakership bid, that was so tense that onlookers nearly got into a fistfight.
The chaos in the house was directly related to C-SPAN’s added freedom to film it.
Established rules and rulings by the majority party determine what kind of footage C-SPAN will have access to film, often resulting in cameras being turned on only for dry vote counts, rather than the behind-the-scenes horse-trading that actually drives Washington politics.
“Because we have cameras in the chamber, we’re able to tell the story of what’s happening on the floor of the House,” Ben O’Connell, director of editorial operations at C-SPAN, told VICE News. “You’re able to see the migrating scrums of congressmen on the House floor as they negotiate with each other. You are able to see extraordinary conversations… And you can see conversations that sometimes look somewhat contentious among some members. You would never be able to see that with the standard House feed.”
The added access has inspired calls to allow C-SPAN more editorial independence in covering Congress.
“The benefits of more transparency are clear this week in the House: Elected officials earning a taxpayer-funded salary should conduct their business as transparently as possible,” Joe Lancaster argued in an article for Reason. “That includes not only their public speaking, but what they do when they’re not speaking into a microphone.”
Control over the cameras has long been a source of controversy.
When they were introduced in Congress in the 1980s, lawmakers like Republican Newt Gingrich often gave grandiose speeches meant for a television audience.
In response, then-House Speaker Tip O’Neill in 1984 ordered the cameras to show Gingrich speaking to a largely empty chamber and making a series of remarks about the GOP fire, causing O’Neill’s words to meet the rare punishment of stricken from the record.
The incident ultimately helped catapult Mr Gingrich to greater political fame and finally the pulpit itself.