Liberate C-SPAN

THE incoming congressional leadership should accede to the request by Brian Lamb, chief executive of C-SPAN, to put television cameras in the chambers of both houses of Congress.

What? you may ask. Aren't cameras there already?

Well, yes. But they are government-owned and -operated, under the strict control of the (hitherto Democratic) congressional leadership.

Don't feel too bad if this is news to you. A recent C-SPAN survey found that two-thirds of the Congress thought that the cameras that have been bringing its proceedings directly to people's living rooms for 16 years were owned by C-SPAN.

It says something, though, about the surprising draw of even a government-controlled feed that C-SPAN should be one of the great sleeper hits of late 20th-century television.

Now with the Congress in Republican hands, Mr. Lamb has asked that C-SPAN cameras be let in to cover floor debates, the Speaker's and majority leader's daily conferences, and all committee sessions.

The Senate has yet to respond, but the new House Speaker, Newt Gingrich, has already agreed to most of the requests and appointed a task force to consider C-SPAN cameras in the chamber. C-SPAN is not, by the way, asking to go anywhere that newspaper reporters aren't already allowed.

The hardest part, Lamb says, will be getting permission to let cameras show the chambers as they really are -- which is to say, often largely empty, especially when the press of other business legitimately draws members elsewhere.

There will always be a need for venues for floating ideas, for asking dumb questions, for reaching out to opponents in search of a compromise. Arguably, opening Congress more fully to cameras may force some of these activities ''upstream'' in the legislative process.

But, as Lamb rightly argues, official public decisions need to be made in public. A deal that can't be made openly shouldn't be made.

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