August 27, 2020


Modernization of Congress Series

The Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress has a number of good suggestions to improve the legislature’s functioning. Several pertain to increasing the legislature’s transparency. This is a good thing in the abstract, but how the legislature is transparent, it seems to me, matters a whole lot. One suggestion not proposed by the Committee, however, should be high on its list of priorities (even if it might be counterintuitive for a committee focused on “modernization”): getting rid of C-SPAN. I don’t mean to pick exclusively on the nonprofit network that televises proceedings in the House and Senate. It’s just a convenient shorthand to say videorecording of congressional proceedings should be prohibited.

There’s an old cliché that, to paraphrase, maintains that Washington, D.C., is just a less prepossessing version of Hollywood. The point, as I understand it, is that American politics is an alternative form of show business. To follow the metaphor, this means our elected officials are the characters in the show. Like any good performer, when the cameras are rolling, they will stay in character.

The underlying truth to this cliché—that much of politics is show over substance—has likely been true since we as a species abandoned the hunter-gatherer lifestyle and organized ourselves into city-states. As Johan Norberg once pointed out, an inscription found on a stone in a Constantinople museum dated to 3800 BCE laments how “politics is corrupt.” The problem seems exacerbated, however, in the present time, when almost anything a politician does in public is caught on camera and capable of being shared with the masses almost instantaneously. In the twenty-first century, “all the world’s indeed a stage,” albeit (as the quote suggests) in the way Rush meant it rather than Shakespeare.

Of course, the Framers did not create Congress to be a theater. Instead, they created it to be a deliberative body (well, two deliberative bodies, technically) to debate and decide the most critical choices affecting the body politic. True deliberation is hard to do when the cameras are rolling. Every speech, statement, and gesture need to be choreographed for the viewers at home. As the Supreme Court recognized in United States v. Nixon, “Human experience teaches that those who expect public dissemination of their remarks may well temper candor with a concern for appearances and for their own interests to the detriment of the decisionmaking process.” It’s difficult enough to create a space for meaningful deliberation when congressional proceedings are to be made public generally (though the need for transparency seems to outweigh the downside here); videorecording everything only compounds this difficulty.

Perhaps, then, Congress should try an experiment to create an environment more hospitable to deliberation. For a set period of time—perhaps two years, coinciding with one congressional term, after which the matter can be revisited—videorecording should be prohibited on the House and Senate floors and in committee proceedings in both chambers. The American people would still be able to monitor what their elected representatives are saying and doing in Congress; they would just have to turn to transcripts of the proceedings, which (as with the Supreme Court’s oral arguments) could be released within just a few hours of the proceedings. And, of course, if anything particularly newsworthy happened in these proceedings, our elected officials would remain free to find the nearest camera in the halls of Congress and inform the public more immediately. Hopefully, however, the absence of videorecording in the proceedings themselves would diminish the temptation to turn every floor statement and committee hearing into a moment to play for partisan advantage rather than tackle meaningfully the tough issues of the day.

There’s a quandary in quantum mechanics, famously embodied in the metaphor of Schrödinger’s cat, that (to oversimplify) posits that the act of perception distorts the phenomenon being perceived. The same seems true of contemporary politics. At least one cause of the universally decried dysfunction in Washington seems to be that too much of what is done in Congress happens under the distorting gaze of the camera lens. Maybe if we got rid of the cameras, things might improve. It’s worth a try.


All views expressed herein are solely those of the author.

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