Election-year frustration spills over on issue of House TV use
Washington — It erupted this week in the US House of Representatives with the spectacle of legislators shouting each other down and a red-faced House Speaker being ruled out of order.
But this hottest feud in recent memory had been building for months between the House Democrats and Republicans. For all of the amusement that it has afforded outsiders, the warfare is viewed with deadly seriousness on Capitol Hill. Amid some little-heard calls for reason and civility, there are yet no signs of a cease-fire.
On the surface the fight is an airwaves war, complete with electronic weaponry in the form of the television cameras that beam House proceedings to millions of cable-television households. A trio of young Republicans fired the first shot by reserving time almost daily after regular House business to lambaste the Democrats before the TV cameras.
Democratic anger peaked when Rep. Newt Gingrich of Georgia, an ideological member of the Republican party's right wing, began naming members of the opposition party and charging them, in essence, with having been soft on communism in the past.
Democratic Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. counterattacked last week by ordering the House camera to take a ''wide shot'' of the whole chamber during one of the GOP speeches, showing it to be practically empty while the Republican spoke and gestured as if talking to an audience. It was the first time the cameras had focused on anyone except the member who was speaking.
Tempers flared on both sides, with the Massachusetts Speaker coming to his boiling point and charging on the House floor that Representative Gingrich had ''challenged (the Democrats') Americanism, and it is the lowest thing that I have ever seen in my 32 years in Congress.'' For that, the Speaker was reprimanded by the House presiding officer.
The dispute is not over. Republicans are already moving to force the leadership to order wide camera shots of the House during regular business, revealing that the chamber is frequently almost empty.
The main source of the feuding is probably the tension of a presidential election year, when partisan feelings are always strong. ''Part of it is created by the Speaker himself,'' says a top GOP aide. ''He is using the House as a political tool to get Ronald Reagan out of office.''
What rankles Republicans is that the Speaker can control the House schedule and keep off the floor controversial bills that might damage his party in the elections. They point to the immigration reform bill, which was once slated to go to the floor this month, but has incurred the enmity of many Hispanics in California. So O'Neill has postponed the immigration bill action until after the California primary on June 5.
And the GOP aide points to another burr under the GOP saddle. ''You're also witnessing the growing aggravation with a lot of Republicans with being in the minority. You've just got to vent your frustrations when you get stepped on.''
As for Democrats, many are weary of the daily verbal beating at the hands of Mr. Gingrich and his conservative colleagues, Reps. Robert S. Walker of Pennsylvania and Vin Weber of Minnesota.
As Rep. Geraldine A. Ferraro (D) of New York explained this week, members are tired of having constituents tell them they heard the Republican speeches broadcast over cable TV, and asking, ''Why don't you answer?''
Veteran Republican Rep. Henry J. Hyde places blame on the Speaker for ''getting hypersensitive'' and for continually flaying the President. But the Illinois lawmaker, a staunch conservative, also concedes that President Reagan has not been blameless since his criticism of Mr. O'Neill over US troops in Lebanon.
''If you're going to throw that stuff, some of it's going to get thrown back at you,'' says Representative Hyde. ''I do think things are getting a little too strident. A little lighter touch is needed.''
That sentiment is clearly shared by House minority leader Robert H. Michel (R) of Illinois, who sat silently during the row this week in the House.
An unrepentant O'Neill told reporters Wednesday that he was satisfied that he had won. Now the TV public can see the chamber, and the Republicans can no longer ''point to empty seats,'' he said.