Showing the Senate at work

Television coverage of Senate proceedings has been exceedingly slow in coming. It has been six years since the Senate's sister chamber, the House, opened its doors to live, unedited camera viewing on the C-Span cable network. Six years to travel the hundred yards or so across the Capitol -- and the viewing lights are not on yet: Now that's a slow dawn. On balance we side with technology: Greater public access to elected officials' legislative proceedings tends toward greater understanding and accountability. If it is possible to see more, even if now largely on the cable network, why not?

There are, indeed, some minuses. Television, like modern fund-raising practices and free mail to constituents, already helps the incumbent; more than 9 out of 10 members of the House were returned to office last fall. The camera influences political life. ``One of the best parts of politics is quiet, reasonable negotiation -- the art of compromise: Television tends to discourage that,'' notes Austin Ranney, director of political studies at the American Enterprise Institute. ``There seems to be a built-i n suspicion that if deliberations are done in secret, out of range of cameras, there must be something dirty going on.'' And the camera can give individual legislators, or groups such as the young GOP conservatives in the House, an independent stage to press maverick, not consensus, views.

Still, modest as the edge may be, it is in favor of television in the Senate chamber. Television, of course, is not entirely novel on Capitol Hill. It came to Congress with historic episodes like the McCarthy hearings in the 1950s and the Watergate hearings in the early '70s. The extension of coverage to routine floor debate only rounds out the picture of congressional proceedings. To propose radio coverage for the Senate as an interim step is but a tactic for delay. The House experience since 1979 show ed neither great harm nor great good from cameras in the chamber. A few news clips from the cable coverage on network TV, perhaps. Greater prominence to House debate, in comparison with the Senate, on key issues like Central American policy, perhaps.

The argument we like best: If television is to be used so much for staged political events -- from contrived ``news'' events to paid campaign commercials -- then it should provide more-realistic coverage of government in action. ``Government'' itself is often the object of derision. By and large, members of the United States House and Senate are an intelligent and able group. Collegial nuances of Senate debate may be lost. But we see little else to fear in greater public familiarity with legislators in action.

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