As C-SPAN Turns 40, Marylanders Still Wait for Lawmakers to Part the Drapes

An image from the first day C-Span broadcast 40 years ago, with the late Speaker Thomas "Tip" O'Neill presiding over the House of Representatives. Photo courtesy of C-Span.

On March 19, 1979, Americans with cable television — and some time on their hands — were able to watch C-Span’s first gavel-to-gavel coverage of a U.S. House of Representatives floor session.

The first speech on that first day was given by Rep. Albert Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.), a former journalist and future senator who would go on to become vice president.

He thanked the lawmakers who pushed to get cameras installed in the chamber, and expressed optimism about the House’s desire for greater openness.

“Television will change this institution, Mr. Speaker, just as it has changed the executive branch,” Gore said. “But the good will far outweigh the bad.”

Coming just a handful of years after the Watergate scandal, the installation of cameras was seen as way to regenerate faith in the nation’s leaders and institutions, Gore added.

“The solution for the lack of confidence in government, Mr. Speaker, is more open government at all levels.”

Four decades later, Maryland’s legislative leaders are just now embracing that view.

While the General Assembly has made great strides in giving citizens more access — through the live-streaming of committee hearings, the posting of bills, fiscal notes and voting history, and the web-casting of floor-session audio — the legislature has yet to provide the level of access that the House of Representatives opted for in the late winter of 1979.

“We dragged them kicking and screaming into the new world,” House Minority Whip Kathy Szeliga (R-Baltimore and Harford Counties) said with a laugh this week.

Szeliga and Del. David Moon (D-Montgomery) cosponsored legislation earlier this session to live-stream House sessions starting next year.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel), who has presided over the chamber since 2003, met with the pair and agreed to live-stream the 2020 session on a pilot basis.

“I’m a little but disappointed it’s taken this long to get there, but persistence pays off,” Szeliga said. “I knew eventually they’d have to succumb!”

The state Senate is expected to follow suit in 2021.

The lack of cameras in the House and Senate chambers is “really troubling for transparency and for the ability for Marylanders to provide oversight of their government,” said Damon Effingham, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, the political watchdog.

“I will say, ‘better late than never.’ These programs are so powerful.”

Good government groups have long pushed for government at all levels to make their proceedings as accessible as possible.

Critics caution that the presence of cameras will lead to grandstanding — long, self-serving speeches by lawmakers who want to cultivate a larger profile for themselves. Incumbent office-holders also worry that a gaffe will go viral or that a snippet of conversation will be taken out of context by a political opponent in the next election.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 44 states, Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands provide live-stream of video at least one chamber of their legislature.

Like Al Gore 40 years ago, Del. Dereck E. Davis (D-Prince George’s), chair of the House Economic Matters Committee, expressed confidence that the good will outweigh the bad.

“(It) helps the public get a firmer grasp of the debate,” he said.

From his experience as a committee chairman, Davis knows there are people who watch the legislature in action.

“I know people have watched it because of the feedback,” he said.

He acknowledges that the Maryland legislature has been slow to enter the modern era.

“We’re a little behind the times,” he said. “We should have the full video feed. We’re getting there.”

Szeliga, the second in command for the minority party, is hopeful the presence of cameras will serve as a check on the majority.

Recalling a late-night vote to increase the state’s alcohol tax by 50 percent in 2012, she said her colleagues “may or may not [grandstand], but what it will stop is shenanigans.”

Del. Curtis S. Anderson (D-Baltimore City), a former broadcast journalist who has served since 1983, doesn’t think grandstanding will be a concern, because lawmakers who want media attention already have a reason to get up and make a speech.

“There’s grandstanding now,” he said. “On the issues that catch the attention of the media, [TV news] cameras are allowed in and they’re there.”

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