NEAL CONAN, host:
Every day, C-SPAN viewers can watch and listen to speeches from the floor of the House of Representatives. In this case, Congressman Phil Gingrey, a Republican from Georgia.
Unidentified Man #1: Please yield three minutes to the gentleman from Georgia, member of the Rules Committee, Mr. Gingrey.
Unidentified Man #2: The gentleman is recognized for three minutes.
Representative PHIL GINGREY (Republican, Georgia): Mr. Speaker, I rise today in support of the rule in this underlying bill…
CONAN: And what we see is a fairly tight shot of a representative speaking directly into a camera whose lens never moves. What we don't see is anything else - whether other members of the House are riveted by his remarks or reading newspapers or even whether they're there.
The cameras are not controlled by C-SPAN. Under the original agreement with the House leaders, the speaker of the House is in charge of what viewers see or, equally important, what we don't see. Last week, C-SPAN's chairman and CEO, Brian Lamb, sent a letter to Nancy Pelosi, the incoming speaker of the House, appealing for the right to show reaction shots, to pan the chamber, to allow television viewers to see what any visitor to the House gallery can see. Brian Lamb joins us now from C-SPAN's headquarters here in Washington, D.C. And Brian Lamb, always nice to talk to you.
Mr. BRIAN LAMB Chairman and CEO, C-SPAN): How are you, Neal?
CONAN: I'm well, thank you. I know you've tried this before with no luck. Do you expect a different outcome this time around?
Mr. LAMB: Have no expectations at all. All we're doing is following Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi's own words, in which she says the Democrats intend the most honest, most open, and most ethical Congress in history. We heard something of the same - not the exact words - when the Republicans came in in '95, and we didn't do very well then, so we thought we'd try again.
CONAN: And what is it exactly that you would like your viewers to be able to see?
Mr. LAMB: Well, the activities on the floor of the House and Senate are seen through cameras controlled and operated and owned by the House and the Senate. And in the House, for instance, the speaker has the power to tell the cameras which way to go, what to shoot, what to turn the cameras toward - and they have a lot of very strict rules, which means that you don't really see what actually happens on the floor if you're watching C-SPAN at home, when we are in the House of Representatives.
CONAN: And a lot of the time, that's not a whole lot. I mean, during morning remarks, for example, there's hardly anybody there.
Mr. LAMB: There - and that's fine. I mean, everybody that - serious C-SPAN watchers know that. And it actually, I think, over last 28 years has made some people who watch cynical, thinking that they're trying to cover up what they know is happening and that there are not many people there.
And I don't think if people had it all explained to them, and we try to explain to them, they'd be all that mad that they aren't there. There's a lot of business that's done that each individual wants to do, and there's no reason why 534 others ought to sit around and listen to it.
Mr. LAMB: And therefore, with an explanation, it kind of makes sense. Nevertheless, as you point out, without an explanation, it does sound like they're trying to cover up embarrassment.
Mr. LAMB: Well, the operative word in Washington - has been and always will be - control, and this is an example of where they take it a step beyond what's needed. I mean, our cameras, our C-SPAN-owned cameras, are in all the hearing rooms. We control the shots, we show the room in a way that we want to show it, rather than the way that Congress wants to show it. We've never had a problem, never a complaint, in the last 28 years.
And so we're saying give us this chance to do the same thing in the House and Senate. At the moment, we're just asking for the House - and we'll go from there, if we get it - to the Senate. The idea being that we will show exactly what's happening without a great deal of embellishment, the same way we have in other venues around Washington for the last 28 years.
CONAN: We're talking with Brian Lamb, the CEO and chairman of C-SPAN News. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And Brian Lamb, we mentioned that a lot of the time, there's not a lot going on the floor, but sometimes there is great drama on the floor of the House of Representatives, or for that matter, the United States Senate - when people are meeting in little conclaves, and the speaker or the majority leader is running around twisting arms.
Mr. LAMB: The last time we went through this, there were several meetings held, both with the Republicans and the Democrats, and at the time, the attitude on the part of the Democrats was not a whole lot different than the Republicans.
There was a lot of talk in the beginning of our request, in 1994-95, that people were interested in it. But then the longer they talked and the more caucuses they had, people like Tom DeLay stepped up and said - we understand, we didn't, were in the room - but we were told he said: over my dead body will we allow those cameras in the House of Representatives.
The other thing that happened, and I'll never forget this, was when one very important member of Congress suggested that what they would do is have a certain area roped off, over at one side or the other of the House floor, and that we would agree in advance not to show what goes on in that area, and that's where they could make their deals. And of course, we wouldn't do that.
CONAN: And it's not just the votes - excuse me, it's not just the cameras on the floor. You also asked for access, quick access, to electronically recorded votes, and when we talk about votes, this is in terms of when you're listening to the House of Representatives, this is often what you hear.
(Soundbite of Congress session)
Unidentified Man #3: Vote: The ayes are 228; the nays, 196. The resolution is agreed to, and without objection, the motion to reconsider is laid upon the table.
CONAN: And of course, votes are the most dramatic element of a lot of the proceedings on the floor of the House of Representatives, Brian Lamb, and you can't report the votes as they're happening, even though, if you're in the House gallery, you can see the votes as they're happening.
Mr. LAMB: Not only can't we report them as it's happening, it's hours afterwards that we actually get out hands on the votes. And it seems to be a bit silly in this day and age, when everything is instantaneous, that we have to have a hiatus period where they won't give us the votes. And there's never really any good excuse for this…
CONAN: Excuse me, Brian, are you there? And we seem to be having a technical problem with the connection up to C-SPAN headquarters up on Capitol Hill. We'll try to check it out as we go along. And - Brian? And so clearly, we're having a problem.
In any case, let's see if we can get a caller on the line. This is Rick(sp), and Rick's calling us from San Francisco.
RICK (Caller): Hi there. Well, first off, even though Brian's not there, C-SPAN is a wonderful thing. It's especially great during election season. I had occasion, a couple times, to visit the Capitol and see the House in session. And the room where I'd love to see a camera, are the reception rooms on the sides of the chamber, where you see the members meeting with the various people who come in to peddle their influence and so on.
And a camera there, even without sound, would probably be incredibly revealing, even more so than what happens on the floor.
CONAN: Let's see if Brian Lamb has been able to re-join us. Brian are you - no, he's not there. The reason, of course - the reception areas just outside the floor of the House of Representatives and the floor of the United States Senate, for that example, are those areas where activity occurs. Of course, you need special passes to get on to the floor itself, and Rick, as you suggest, most lobbyists don't have that kind of access.
RICK: That is correct. But when I was there, I noticed, from looking at the faces, that this was where much of the real business of the country got done, and nobody had any idea that it was happening.
CONAN: All right. Rick, thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it.
RICK: Thank you.
CONAN: And we thank Brian Lamb. We apologize for our technical difficulties. Brian - excuse me, Brian, are you there?
Mr. LAMB: I'm here. Can you hear me, Neal?
CONAN: Yes we can. All right. We just have about 30 seconds left with you. I don't know if you had a chance to hear that call from Rick in San Francisco, who said what he'd like to see is cameras have access to the reception areas where the lobbyists do a lot of their work.
Mr. LAMB: Well, it makes a lot of sense. I mean, we know that'll never happen. But you know, it's going to be very important to watch the first couple of weeks of the House and what they do, because this is an issue they promised to deal with and to clean up some of the problems that they had over the last 12 years, and we'll see if they can do it or not.
CONAN: Brian Lamb, thanks very much. We appreciate it.
Mr. LAMB: Thank you, Neal, very much.
CONAN: And again, we apologize for our technical problems. Brian Lamb is chairman and CEO of C-SPAN. He joined us today from C-SPAN here in Washington, D.C. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.