Letting the public in on Senate debate
THE senator was giving an impassioned speech on danger awaiting the United States in Central America. He strode about his desk, speaking from memory, mesmerizing the visitors who happened to be in the galleries. It could have been a historic moment save for one thing: Only two other senators were in the chamber, and they were sitting at their desks intently preparing their own speeches. But mesmerizing speeches are rare nowadays in the US Senate. Usually one looks up from a near-deserted floor to the reporter's gallery only to see a few forlorn reporters working crossword puzzles or flipping through notes from an earlier interview, while on the floor below two or three senators slowly walk the aisles in what appears little like a legislative body. It has become a tired joke to refer sarcastically to the Senate as ``the world's greatest deliberative body.''
Where is the forum today for a serious deliberation of this country's very serious business? There are the talk shows and the op-ed articles, but there is no one forum where the country's business is focused, where debates of importance are guaranteed to center the public's attention.
What would happen if the Senate chose to open its deliberations to television? The Senate Rules Committee is scheduled to hold hearings on the issue tomorrow and Wednesday. Unlike the House of Representatives, the Senate works under rules that basically allow a senator to talk as long as he wants about anything he likes. With an atmosphere calmer and more reasoned than in the House of Representatives, the Senate is perhaps the only place -- with the exception of the presidential debates every four years
-- where true national debates can be conducted. Why hasn't the Senate opened its doors?
It's not the first time the question has been raised. One of the initial questions faced by the first Senate -- in 1789 -- was whether to open its sessions to the public. The Constitution was silent on the matter, and the Senate began its debates closed to all outsiders, press and public alike.
The public, and the press, soon began to conjure images of dark ``monarchical'' schemes being hatched behind closed doors, and a clamor for an open Senate began.
The arguments put forth in that summer of 1789 bear an uncanny resemblance to the arguments being heard today over television. The foremost argument then and now is the fear that senators would become more interested in playing to the public with fiery rhetoric than with carrying on the public's business in an expeditious manner. It is no wonder that senators in 1789 feared this. When they walked past the chambers of the House of Representatives they could hear the galleries in tumult, with visitors che ering on their favorite speakers and striking their canes on the floor with shouts of ``Bravo!''
President Washington sensed this in a letter to a friend: ``Why they keep their doors shut, when acting in a Legislative capacity, I am unable to inform you; unless it is because they think there is too much speaking to the Gallery in the other House, and business thereby retarded.''
Many senators spoke openly of this fear, but some doubts were advanced only privately. ``You know I am not a friend to mystery and hypocrisy,'' wrote Sen. Paine Wingate in a private letter. ``But there are certain foibles which are inseparable from men and bodies of men and perhaps considerable faults which had better be concealed from observation. How would all the little domestic transactions of even the best regulated family appear if exposed to the world?''
But the public was adamant. Even though the Revolution had been fought and won and a new Constitution adopted, there was still much suspicion -- mostly justified -- among everyday people in America that the forces of aristocracy were alive and well, especially in the Senate whose members were not even elected by the public but appointed by the various legislatures.
Those fears must have been inflamed when the Senate, in one of its first official acts, adopted a resolution stating that the title for the chief executive ought to be ``His Highness, the President of the United States and Protector of the Rights of Same.'' (The House of Representatives, whose doors had been opened to the public from its very first day, rejected the Senate's proposal with much derision. ``President of the United States'' would be quite sufficient, the House replied.)
One newspaper editor gleefully compared the American Senate to the British House of Lords: ``The PEERS of America disdain to be seen by vulgar eyes: the music of their voices is harmony only for themselves, and must not vibrate in the ravished ears of an ungraceful and uncourtly multitude . . . The Senate usurp the secret privileges of the House of Lords.''
Editorialists in all parts of the country wrote similar articles, and they eventually took their toll. One supporter of an open chamber urged senators to put the lie to such anti-monarchical hysteria. ``Let us show the people that the only aristocracy dwelling in this chamber is an aristocracy of information and abilities.''
Another editor also played upon the vanities of senators. The editor of the Gazette of the US pointed out that House members were receiving the lion's share of publicity. ``It matters little to the public who presides in the Senate: They do not choose to let the public know any thing about the reasons of their political conduct; the public may therefore trouble themselves little about them, except it be to watch them with a jealousy and try to get rid of them as soon as possible; it is but little good e ver they did, and but little good they can do, but they may do much evil; there are however valuable characters shut up in the Divan. We sincerely wish them released.''
On Feb. 20, 1794, the Senate voted 19-8 to open their proceedings to the public ``so soon as suitable galleries shall be provided.''
For their part, the House of Representatives took it all in stride. Just as today, members of the ``lower house'' (as representatives refer to themselves in mock self-deprecation) took great joy in poking fun at the upper house. One member wrote this satirical view of the House proceedings when it was informed of the Senate vote:
``Now Mr. Grove, be so good as to step upstairs and take a peep into the Senator chamber -- That mighty conclave where it has been surmised Majestic Majack dwealt, where the illumed minds of mortals shone so bright as to exclude the rays of light from Heaven -- where it has been suggested that Dangerous Vice sits as a minion on a throne, to make the hateful monster aristocracy lose all its proud and surley Features by dressing it in the garb of Davilla. The Deception however is discovered, and the Lord s, the mighty Lords, are to be beheld as soon as accommodations can be prepared for the People. . . . To be short with you, the Doors of the Senate are to be opened next session -- when some of these within will show their nakedness. . . .''
A postscript: Television might consider what happened after the Senate doors swung open in 1794. Newspaper editors took one look and decided their readers would be much more interested in proceedings of the House, the ``people's chamber'' where colorful figures were unlikely to let a little thing like gentlemenly behavior interfere with rhetorical hijinks. A televised Senate today might find its ratings suffering in comparison with the House.
But isn't there a reasonable possibility that television in the Senate might appeal to the best rather than the worst in senators? Shallowness and crassness would be exposed to an unblinking eye. The more thoughtful and articulate might be motivated to new heights by a national audience -- particularly a national audience seeing their speech whole rather than in 15-second snippets on the evening news. Surely in this complex and dangerous age we would do well to have a national forum for serious debate. Where better to have that forum than the body fashioned after the original Forum itself?
Tim Hackler is a Senate press secretary.