For the first time in history Wednesday, Maryland residents were able to watch a video live-stream of the House of Delegates engaged in substantive debate on a pending legislation.
It happened without warning, when Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) decided to activate the half-dozen small, robotic cameras that were installed around the chamber late last year.
She was making good on a commitment made by her predecessor, the late Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel), to launch a pilot program to provide live, gavel-to-gavel coverage of the House.
While the House had already live-streamed portions of three floor sessions this year, Wednesday’s broadcast was the first to feature a lengthy and substantive debate.
For decades, legislative leaders opted to keep the drapes in Annapolis drawn, even as cameras became commonplace elsewhere.
But when two lawmakers — Dels. Kathy Szeliga (R-Baltimore and Harford) and David Moon (D-Montgomery) — introduced legislation requiring that cameras be installed in the House chamber, Busch adopted their push for openness.
The U.S. House of Representatives allowed C-SPAN cameras to provide coverage of the chamber in 1980, and the U.S. Senate followed several years later. Most local governments air their meetings on cable and online, as does the Board of Public Works.
The Maryland General Assembly has long been the outlier. (The legislature does air bill hearings in committee but not votes, where the action often is.)
People who tuned into the chamber’s first-ever floor debate Wednesday got quite a show.
For most of the 99-minute House of Delegates session, lawmakers engaged in a lengthy, passionate debate over House Bill 4, a measure offered by a group of Democrats to restrict the transfer to rifles and shotguns to people who are prohibited by law from owning a handgun.
Not surprisingly, Republican amendments to the bill were defeated and arguments against the bill appeared to go unheeded. All pretty routine stuff in a legislature in which Democrats have the numbers to work their will whenever they choose.
But things got interesting, and tempers flared, when GOP leaders objected to a technique used to try to amend the measure. That led to a ruling from the House parliamentarian and eventually a challenge to the ruling of the chair, a dramatic and rarely used maneuver.
It was tense and unusually watchable, if you’re into that sort of thing. (The video is now available online.)
The House livestream is produced by a crew from Maryland Public Television, under contract to the legislature’s Department of Information Services.
MPT installed unmanned cameras around the chamber before the session started. They are controlled by a crew that sits in a newly-constructed glass booth high above the House floor.
With 141 members, any one of them could pop up to speak at any moment, a live webcast poses a significant challenge.
Not only does the director have to find the person speaking and cut to them as quickly as possible, they must determine who is speaking and find the appropriate chyron to identify the lawmaker.
The MPT crew did a very good job on their maiden voyage.
Although there were a few awkward instances when it took time to cut to the person speaking, overall the production was crisp, and the video and audio quality were respectable.
The video stream was inset in a graphic that listed the House agenda for the day, giving viewers the opportunity not only to read the bill being debated but also to read amendments as they came up, a very user-friendly feature.
An adjustment period?
The House’s contract with MPT allows for 30 days of coverage this legislative session.
Although local TV news cameras have been allowed on the House and Senate floor for decades, they typically only show up for high-profile bills.
Gavel-to-gavel coverage is altogether different, and there will likely be a period of adjustment.
On Wednesday, viewers could see that some legislators were paying attention to the debate, while others were working on their laptops or talking on cell phones.
At one point during the gun debate, a House staffer appeared dubious of an argument being made by a lawmaker.
In an interview, Szeliga said she is proud of her role in bringing cameras to the floor, and she expressed confidence that viewers will see that the tone of Maryland’s legislature is much less acrimonious than Congress is. She expects little in the way of grandstanding.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Luke H. Clippinger (D-Baltimore) wasted no time taking advantage of the new technology, posting a clip of himself speaking on the floor to Twitter.
“Don’t fall for the smoke & mirrors,” he wrote. “Marylanders want background checks. #HB4.”
By 10 p.m. Wednesday, the clip had been viewed more than 1,700 times.
There was a light moment on Wednesday when Del. Carl Anderton Jr. (R-Wicomico) rose at the start of the session to deliver the opening prayer. He was wearing an eye-catching purple plaid jacket, purple patterned shirt and purple striped tie.
In an interview, Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) applauded the House for its decision to televise select floor sessions, and he said he intends to bring cameras to the floor of his chamber next year.
Danielle E. Gaines contributed to this report.