Lately, though, I have had second thoughts. C-SPAN has many wonderful programs (Book TV, the series on first ladies, etc.). But its coverage of Congress is causing fundamental damage to the ability of Congress to do its job.
C-SPAN televises sessions of House and Senate in which only a handful of the members are present. Speeches are addressed, not to the other members of Congress, who are not present, but to the TV audience. This makes sense for members who love free publicity but takes time which speakers might have used consulting with other members of their houses, with staff, or with constituents.
C-SPAN sometimes covers hearings in which only committee members of one party are present. These hearings are orchestrated to score points with the public for one side of an issue or the other. They don’t contribute to serious negotiations among committee members about what needs to be done.
Since all public policies have both advantages and disadvantages, simplistic analysis assuming that some proposals are all benefits and no costs or all costs and no benefits must be avoided. Yet that is exactly what many of the speeches and hearings telecast by C-SPAN provide us with.
I think that C-SPAN should stop televising sessions of the Senate and House except on the rare occasions when quorums are present and serious business is being done. It should stop covering committee hearings in which both parties are not represented and in which there is no serious discussion of both the pros and cons of proposed legislation. This would give it time to broadcast more of its other programming, which is often more substantive, and it would help push Congress back towards the functionality it has lost in recent decades.
Such a pullback by C-SPAN would have some costs for democracy, which requires an informed electorate. But remember, all policies have both costs and benefits. The benefit here would be a Congress that is more functional and whose members spend their time interacting more productively. This would be a good tradeoff.
It has long been understood that serious negotiations must be conducted in private, so that negotiators are not trapped into hardened initial positions by fear of losing face or being accused of inconsistency. The Constitutional Convention of 1787 was not open to press or public, though the results of that Convention were of course made public when the proposed Constitution was sent out for ratification. President Woodrow Wilson famously called in international relations for “open covenants, openly arrived at.” But experience teaches that diplomatic negotiations are more fruitful when conducted in secret, so that we get “open covenants, secretly arrived at.”
If members of Congress want to continue giving speeches to empty chambers in order to get something printed in the Congressional Record, which they have long done, let them do so. But don’t give them additional incentives for such behavior by putting them on live TV. The time has come to help Congress resume its traditional functionality by treating its members to a healthy dose of benign neglect by C-SPAN.