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Editorial: Americans deserve full picture of U.S. House floor

June House sit-in from the Twitter feed of U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL).

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Last month, bizarrely, the American public had to rely on cell phone feeds to watch a stunning sit-in on the U.S. House floor by Democrats demanding action on gun legislation.

The rogue broadcasts — captured in violation of House rules — emerged after House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., had gaveled the chamber to a close, a move that turns off all House cameras.

Coverage of the hours-long dramatic sit-in was a jolting reminder that the House and Senate need to update their rules on cameras to align with the 21st century. A resolution introduced last week by U.S. Rep. Ami Bera, D-Calif., and co-sponsored by U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., is one move in that direction in the U.S. House — the first chamber to permit cameras, back in 1978.

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Currently, the House Recording Studio operates eight chamber cameras and shares their product with the nonprofit C-SPAN and other accredited broadcast media. Coverage runs gavel to gavel, which means the party controlling the speakership can gavel a session, and a broadcast, to a close.

Last month, Republican Ryan did just that. In response, House Democrats whipped out their cell phones and turned to Periscope, Twitter and Facebook to record their protest over gun legislation inaction. C-SPAN and other networks picked up the rogue feeds.

In August 2008, then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., gaveled the House out of session for a five-week summer recess, ending broadcast coverage as Republicans demanded action on energy legislation. Pelosi even turned out the lights on them.

What the American public sees of lawmakers, whose salaries they bankroll, on the floor of chambers they pay to operate should not be limited by party politics.

One version of Bera’s bill would allow cameras to roll on the House floor past a gavel-closing, as long as at least one House member is present. Bera says he also supports allowing “nonpartisan, independent cameras” in the House.

For 37 years, ever since C-SPAN began transmitting House coverage, it has asked every House Speaker to let it supplement existing House cameras — now focused mostly on the House speaker and lawmaker podiums — with its own cameras that could capture such things as how many and which members are present, the gallery crowd and reaction to events, said Susan Swain, C-SPAN co-CEO.

C-SPAN wants to cover House floor activity like a real news event, similar to what’s allowed now during House and Senate committee hearings.

“The irony is, cameras are a ubiquitous part of our society and part of the life of politicians from the moment they put up their hands to run for office,” Swain said. “The only place we don’t see a full view [of them] is on the floor of the House or Senate.”

Just last Thursday, in another Democratic protest over the gun issue, Swain said, about 20 House members stood in line, each holding a photo of a victim of gun violence, waiting to speak on the House floor. But the line was not captured by rigid cameras focused on the speaker’s podium.

Americans understand that democracy can be messy, and also dramatic. It’s time for them to see the whole picture — not just a version edited by a speaker’s gavel.

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