Who Controls Public TV Coverage of the US Congress?

House Democrats on steps of Congress after ending their gun controls sit-in
House Democrats End Their Sit In Over Gun Control Vote. Allison Shelley / Getty Images

On June 22, 2016, several Democrats in the House of Representatives effectively took control of the floor by staging an unprecedented “sit-in” on the House floor to protest what they felt to be an undue delay by Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan to bring gun control legislation up for a vote.  

In reaction, Speaker Ryan ordered the C-SPAN network’s public coverage TV cameras turned off. Did he have the right to do that?

First, there is no law or federal regulation requiring the broadcasting to the public of any of the meetings, hearings, or other proceedings of either chamber of the U.S. Congress.

Instead, the televising of Congressional activity to the public is done totally at the discretion of the House and Senate.

TV in the House

Under Rule V of the Rules of the House of Representatives, the Speaker of the House is given total authority to “administer a system subject to his direction and control for complete and unedited audio and visual broadcasting and recording of the proceedings of the House.”

Basically, the speaker decides if, when, how, and by whom the various proceedings of the House will be televised to the public.

So, yes, Speaker Ryan did have the right and authority to order the TV cameras turned off during the Democrat’s gun control sit-in. In fact, House members who used the Periscope mobile app to send out live video over their cell phones may have been in violation of the rules of the House.

For many years, the rules of the House allowed TV camera operators to show members only as they spoke from the lecterns or from the floor “well” in front of the speaker’s desk. Cameras were not allowed to pan the entire House chamber as this could often result in the public seeing a big room full of empty chairs since many members are not present during all debates.

The anti-panning rule as abolished by Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O-Neill in 1984.

TV in the Senate

Senate rules for televising chamber proceedings are similar to those in the House and fall under the authority of the Senate Rules and Administration Committee.

Unlike in the House, TV camera operators are still banned from showing panning or wide-angle views of the Senate chamber during general debates. Instead, such views are allowed only during roll call votes and quorum calls. While the House uses an electronic voting system, Senators cast their votes verbally from their desks or as they walk about the floor.

Love or hate the content, live daily TV coverage of Congress is now taken for granted. But for years -- even after TV sets started becoming common parts of American households -- live coverage of the legislative branch was not allowed. What did it take to change this?

Lights, Cameras, Congress

While Americans started buying TV sets in 1939, they did not get to watch a live meeting of Congress until January 3, 1947, when TV cameras were briefly allowed into the House chamber to telecast the opening of the first session of the 80th Congress. However, that would also be the last such broadcast for nearly 30 years, during which the percentage of American homes with TV sets grew from about 2% to over 90%.

When the live TV cameras first started coming back to Congress, they were allowed sparingly, carefully, and only in the House, the “peoples’ chamber.” Coverage of the House was limited to major presidential speeches, like the State of the Union Address. But TV coverage continued to be banned from regular House floor sessions and committee hearings. House leaders were concerned that when the members knew the TV cameras were on, they would spend too much time trying to score political points with voters, instead of thoughtfully undertaking the legislative process. This, some would say, is exactly how it has worked out.

The push for full “Congress Live” public TV coverage got a boost from the gavel-to-gavel live coverage of the 1973 Watergate scandal Senate committee hearings and the 1974 House Judiciary Committee hearings on articles of presidential impeachment against President Richard Nixon.

Motivated by the post-Watergate drive for “transparency and accountability” in government, Speaker of the House Thomas “Tip” O'Neill authorized a test of closed-circuit TV coverage of House floor meetings. Finally, on March 19, 1979, public television and the C-SPAN cable network began airing daily live broadcasts of House floor proceedings.

The Senate, on the other hand, took more of a “Not so fast,” stance on TV cameras. Remember that from 1789 to 1794, all proceedings of the U.S. Senate were held in secret behind closed doors.

Even after daily TV coverage of the House went live via C-SPAN in 1979, a large and powerful block of senators considered the idea to be inappropriate for the “Upper Chamber” of Congress. Those senators’ feared TV cameras would disrupt decorum, thus giving the people an unfavorable view of the Senate.

In 1981, for example, Rhode Island Democrat Claiborne Pell, citing what he called the “unique character of the Senate” argued that “the presence of television will lead to more, longer, and less relevant speeches, to more posturing by Senators and to even less useful debate and efficient legislating than we have today.” 

However, the Senate had already dabbled in TV coverage. As early as 1974, with a post-Watergate impeachment trial of President Nixon appearing probable, the Senate began making preparations for live TV coverage of the event. While Nixon’s resignation made the trial unnecessary, the Senate used its preparations to televise the swearing-in of Nelson Rockefeller as vice president on December 19, 1974.

Despite continued opposition, supports of Senate TV coverage eventually prevailed. First, on February 27, 1986, the full Senate approved a recommendation from the Senate Rules Committee to allow a test of televising chamber proceedings. The test proved successful, and on July 29, 1986, the Senate voted to allow regular gavel-to-gavel coverage.