feature image via Digital Trends.
Republicans, while approving rules for the new Congress, instated a fine for streaming video of protests on the House floor. Several Democrats were outraged. Representative Larson of Connecticut called the new rule “unprecedented and unconstitutional.” To be clear, photography on the House floor is already disallowed. They’ve just added a fine for it. So it’s not really unprecedented, nor is it unconstitutional, to enforce a rule that already exists. But I still think it’s wrong. Here’s why.
This move on the Republican party’s part appears to be in direct response to the 25-hour-long sit in led by Democrats over the summer protesting Congress’s inaction on gun control. How gun safety ever got to be partisan is beyond me, I’m pretty sure no one wants anyone to die or even get injured, regardless of party politics. But anyhow, thanks to the NRA, the god given right to stupidly and gravely injure oneself and others has become part of the Republican party platform. But I digress. Democrats, furious with Congress’s inability to pass basically any legislation, let alone the legislation in question—to make it more difficult for those on the terrorism watch list to purchase guns, and to expand background checks necessary to purchase a gun, took to the floor. Literally. They sat on the floor and brought everything to a halt. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan pushed through some legislation and, at 3 am when he’d had quite enough, called a recess. Because the House was technically no longer in session, he had the C-SPAN cameras turned off.
A digression to explain C-SPAN. C-SPAN hasn’t been around that long. Only since 1979, when the House first allowed television coverage of their floor debates. And even then, it wasn’t providing “gavel-to-gavel” coverage—that began in the 80’s, and with the Senate first. According to C-SPAN, it’s a private not-for-profit that volunteers its commitment to cover both the House and the Senate in their entirety. There’s no rule that says they have to. There’s no support from the government, nor opposition. It’s literally that C-SPAN thought it would be better to have a televised government, to increase the contact between the United States populace and their federal government. They’re not obligated to do any of this. But I suspect they wanted to.
Because when Speaker Ryan called a recess and had the cameras turned off, the Democrats violated that rule and began using Periscope to live stream their sit-in. And C-SPAN picked up that live stream. They broadcast shaky phone videos on cable and satellite television. Live streaming has a recent history of being used in resistance, particularly to document acts of gun violence committed by police officers. Because there’s virtually no delay, there’s no way to completely erase the record. Even if someone were to walk up and break a live streaming phone, that doesn’t un-stream what’s been…strum? Streamed. The Democrats methods of documenting their resistance showed, in my opinion, a resonance with both younger, more internet-savvy citizens of the United States, and with victims of gun violence. They understood the power and position of the live-stream. Technically, though, the only rule breakers were Democrats. No one broke the rules but Democrats.
Representative John Lewis of Georgia said, however, that, “Sometimes you have to violate a rule of law to uphold a greater law, a moral law. We have a right to stand up, to speak up, to speak out. We have a right to sit down, or to sit-in, to engage in nonviolent protest. It is always right to do right.” And so they streamed. They streamed because, even though Republicans did nothing wrong, even though C-SPAN did nothing wrong, the spirit of the thing was to make government less transparent than it has been these past few decades. The spirit of the rule breaking was to make it more transparent. Most can agree—more transparent is better than less transparent when it comes to operations of our public officials. On public land. Acting in our public interest.
C-SPAN surpassed most cable networks in their ability to roll with the punches and broadcast what counts—their elasticity surpasses that of the cable news networks in the case of Wendy Davis, for instance. CNN broadcast a blueberry muffin recipe while Davis fought for reproductive rights in the state of Texas. But the Texas Tribune, a local newspaper, live streamed the drama. And almost 200,000 people watched as Republicans attempted to break the law. I remember watching that live stream, thinking that was the moment that cable news died. That was the moment that access to our government went digital. It was the moment that the eyes of the country stopped an entire political party in a large and important state from engaging in a blatant act of corruption. Our eyes on our government is not a bad thing.
So live streaming has a history both with gun violence and with documenting United States politics (in-so-far as something so new can have ‘history’). What doesn’t have nearly as much history is legislation actively concerning modern technology. I have said it before and I will say it again—trying to apply rules created at a time where cyberspace was not yet what it is now is like Cinderella’s awful stepsisters trying to fit their feet into a shoe that’s not made for them. Rulemakers and lawmakers past had no concept of the witchcraft that the internet makes possible. So lawmakers present can slice off a toe, they can slice off a heel, but that glass slipper STILL DOESN’T FIT. It just doesn’t. And trying to cram live streaming into existing photography rules, though it is technically correct, doesn’t take into account the net good of having a transparent government, nor does it take into account the environment that C-SPAN has created for us since 1979, to which we have become accustomed. Nor does it take into account the transformation of traditional media in the hands of digital culture, honestly. How we consume media has changed. How we connect with our Representatives has changed. Live streaming from the House floor should not only be fine-free, it should be allowed.
And I believe this because I tried to think of this as what if it were reversed. What if the Republicans had pulled what I felt was a publicity stunt, and Democrats tried to turn the cameras off? And I couldn’t think of a reason I wouldn’t be mad at my own political party in that instance—both because I agree with a transparent democracy and because I’m always down to give Republican Representatives enough publicity to hang themselves with. Seriously, I couldn’t imagine a single issue that Republicans would live stream about that wouldn’t rally rancor among the 3 million more Americans that think they’re bonkers at the mo’.
I want to be perfectly clear—I’m not talking about wanting constant access to our Representatives, who are also human people with a need for privacy and downtime. I’m not talking about a Dave Eggers’s The Circle situation when it comes to cameras and filming. I’m talking about this instance where Representatives, in session or out, are on public property working to further public interest.
So shame on you, GOP. Shame on you.
Whatever. We will donate so fast to cover the fines. I hope they won’t even bat an eye at this.
My dad said that one of the things that destroyed McCarthy was when they started televising the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings. When the people saw what those were really like they turned their backs on McCarthy. I think that ever since a lot of politicians have feared TV.
Thank you for keeping us informed, Ali! Whenever I see your name I know I’m going to find a clear and comprehensive (if often very disheartening) article.
They should have people film it and then live broadcast it and when they get fines they should take it to the supreme court. Let the Supreme Court decide what was said.
By the way the Supreme Court just audio records their cases. In fact it comes out on CD if you want to listen to it. I know this cause a lawyer friend actually listens to them.