The first effort to link the United States Congress and broadcasting occurred in 1922 when Representative Vincent M. Brennan introduced a bill to allow radio coverage of U.S. House proceedings. The bill failed, and not until the late 1940s was the idea revived. Television, having arrived as a mass medium by then, was allowed in 1948 to cover hearings of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Since few Americans had television receivers in 1948, it was not until the early 1950s that televised congressional hearings generated any viewer interest.

Two televised Senate hearings during the 1950s caused a sensation. Hearings conducted by the Senate Special Committee to Investigate Organized Crime in Interstate Commerce brought the faces and words of notorious mobsters into millions of U.S. homes via coast-to-coast network television. A short time later, Americans once more were drawn to their television screens to watch the hearings of a Senate Committee on Government Operations subcommittee investigate alleged communist infiltration of the U.S. Armed Forces. The hearings were better known as the Army-McCarthy Hearings, identified closely with Subcommittee Chairperson, Senator Joseph McCarthy.

Two decades later, in 1973, the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities conducted what became known as the Watergate hearings. Evidence of misdeeds by President Richard Nixon led the next year to House Judiciary Committee hearings on articles of presidential impeachment. Nearly all public deliberations of both of these committees were televised gavel-to-gavel.

Serious attention to allowing television coverage of actual congressional floor proceedings arose once more with the 1973 formation of the Joint Committee on Congressional Operations. The Committee's charge was to examine means by which Congress could better communicate with the American public. The Committee's subsequent recommendation that television be allowed in the U.S. House and Senate chambers met with resistance in the latter body, but House members seemed more receptive. As a result, House Speaker Thomas (Tip) O'Neill, Jr. ordered testing of a House television system to begin in March 1977. Remote controlled cameras placed at strategic locations in the House chamber were to be used so as not to disrupt House decorum. The television test proved a success. However, full implementation of House television coverage awaited a decision from the House Rules Committee on who would finally control the television cameras--the House itself or television networks who would remain independent of House authority. The Rules Committee decision that the House would best be served by retaining such control was approved by a vote of 235-to-150 in June 1978. Nine months later, on 19 March 1979, the House television system was fully in place and live telecasts of House floor deliberations began.

Television from the U.S. Senate chambers would have to wait still longer. Although a number of senators supported the idea of Senate television, a powerful block opposed it. Senate television opponents saw cameras as disruptive to Senate decorum and unable to present a favorable image of Senate debate to the American public. Senate television proponents nonetheless prevailed, and a Senate Rules Committee recommendation to allow testing of a Senate chamber television system was approved by a vote of 67-to-21 on 27 February 1986. The tests were satisfactory enough to convince members of the Senate to vote on 29 July 1986, to allow gavel-to-gavel coverage of Senate floor proceedings.

Both the U.S. Senate and House include rules for television coverage among their general procedural rules for committee and chamber conduct. Concern over protecting witness privacy and due process rights led the Senate to allow individual committee chairpersons to adopt television rules most appropriate for their particular committee. Such rules generally require that television coverage be prohibited at the request of a committee witness; that television cameras, lights and microphones be unobtrusive; that television personnel conduct themselves in an orderly fashion inside the hearing room; and that no commercial sponsorship of committee hearings be allowed. House rules are similar to Senate rules regarding the conduct of televised hearings. However, House rules require that television be allowed to cover House committee hearings only upon a majority vote of the committee members.

The manner by which House floor proceedings are televised is entirely under the authority of the House speaker. The speaker decides when and if proceedings will be televised and who will be authorized to distribute the television signals to the public. House rules originally required that television cameras focus only on House members as they spoke from lecturns or in the well of the House. Cameras were not to pan the House chamber to show what oftentimes was a sea of empty chairs. Rules prohibiting such panning were abolished by the Speaker in 1984.

Senate rules for televising chamber proceedings fall under the authority of the Senate Rules and Administration Committee. Most rules are similar to those in the House, save for the prohibition on panning the chamber that remains in effect (except during roll-call votes) for the Senate chamber.

Whether television has improved public debate in either the House or Senate is uncertain. Some observers argue that television has led to more grandstanding and contentious rhetoric on the House floor, whereas Senate debate appears more disciplined and more substantive. However, there is general agreement that persons who view televised House and Senate proceedings are introduced to a vast array of issues and debates unimagined before television arrived.

-Ron Garay



Blanchard, Robert, editor. Congress and the News Media. New York: Hastings House, 1974.

Congressional Research Service. Congress and Mass Communications: An Institutional Perspective, prepared for the Joint Committee on Congressional Operations, 93d Cong., 2d session, 1974.

Crain, W. Mark, and Brian Goff. Televised Legislatures: Political Information Technology and Public Choice. Boston, Massachusetts: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1988.

Garay, Ronald. Congressional Television: A Legislative History. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1984.

Hess, Stephen. Live from Capitol Hill! Studies of Congress and the Media. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1991.

Schlesinger, Arthur M., and Roger Bruns, editors. Congress Investigates: A Documented History, 1792-1974. New York: Chelsea House, 1975.

Shuman, Samuel I. Broadcasting and Telecasting of Judicial and Legislative Proceedings. Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Legislative Research Center, 1956.

Straight, Michael. Trial by Television. Boston, Massachusetts: The Beacon Press, 1954.

Summers, Robert E. The Role of Congressional Broadcasting in a Democratic Society (Ph.D. Dissertation, The Ohio State University, 1955). Twentieth Century Fund Task Force on Broadcasting and the Legislature. Openly Arrived At. New York: The Twentieth Century Fund, 1974.

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U.S. Congress. Joint Committee on Congressional Operations. Congress and Mass Communications, 93rd Congress. Second session, 1974.

U.S. House. House Committee on Rules. Broadcasting the Proceedings of the House, 95th Congress. Second session, 1978.


See also Parliament, Coverage by Television; Political Processes and Television; U.S. Presidency and Television; Watergate