Just after midnight on Saturday, Kevin McCarthy was there eventually elected Speaker of the House of Representatives by his Republican counterparts, after a staggering 14 previous unsuccessful rounds of voting. The incident didn’t just start Spotlight on the divisions and dysfunction within the GOP.
After numerous, drawn-out, dramatic votes, it also highlighted how rare it is for the public to actually watch the work of Congress live, and inspired calls to give C-SPAN more control over its in-house cameras.
As the House of Representatives struggled to get its business off the ground, cameras from C-SPAN, the nonprofit public affairs network backed by major cable companies, captured all sorts of notable scenes.
In one case, commentators surprisingly noted cordial exchange between Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Paul Gosar, an Arizona Republican who once posted a violent anime-style parody video showing him killing the New York representative.
Another C-SPAN clip showed a conversation between Mr. McCarthy and Matt Gaetz, one of the main opponents of his bid to speak, that was so tense that bystanders almost got into a fistfight.
The chaos in the house was directly related to C-SPAN’s added freedom in filming.
Established rules and majority party decisions dictate what type of footage C-SPAN will have access to filming, often resulting in cameras only being turned on 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 can tell the story of what’s happening on the floor of the house,” said Ben O’Connell, editorial director at C-SPAN. said VICE News. “You can see the wandering congressmen on the floor of the House of Representatives as they negotiate with each other. You can see exceptional conversations… And you can see conversations that sometimes seem a little controversial to some members. You would never see that with the standard house feed.”
The additional access has led to calls for C-SPAN to be given more editorial independence in covering the Congress.
“The benefits of more openness are evident this week in the House of Representatives: Elected representatives on taxpayer-funded salaries should conduct their business as openly as possible,” said Joe Lancaster argued in an article for reason. “That includes not only their public speaking, but also what they do when they’re not speaking into a microphone.”
Control over the cameras has long been a matter of debate.
When they were introduced in Congress in the 1980s, lawmakers like Republican Newt Gingrich often made grand speeches intended for television audiences.
In response, in 1984 then Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill ordered cameras to show Mr Gingrich addressing a largely empty chamber and made a series of remarks about the GOP firebrand, resulting in Mr O’ Neill said the rare sentence of threatened to be struck off the record.
The incident ultimately helped catapult Mr. Gingrich greater political glory and finally the seat of the speaker itself.