Monday, 15 November 2010

Rule V House of Representatives

The current Rule V deals with broadcasting of the House. Responsibility for a system of "closed circuit viewing of floor proceedings" available throughout offices and rooms in the Capitol and the House Office Buildings - and for a system of "complete and unedited audio and visual broadcasting and recording of the proceedings of the House" rests with the Speaker.

As was forcefully pointed out on a recent programme - the cameras in the House are not C-SPAN's, but those of the House. C-SPAN takes the feed and broadcasts it, but has no control over the cameras.

In May 1984 a row over the cameras became known as "Camscam". Tip O'Neill was angered when Newt Gingrich used a "special order speech" (equivalent to the British 'adjournment debates at the end of the day's business) to attack some Democrats and his suggestion that they didn't have the courage to rise and defend themselves. Of course they weren't there - as is usual during "special order speeches" only those making them were actually in the House. But the public couldn't see that - as the camera only showed the person speaking. It was a trick Gingrich had often used. On this occasion Speaker O'Neill was so incensed that he called the Chair of the committee which administered the television system and told him to have a caption written to inform the audience that the House had completed its legislative work and was in special order time. He also told the Chair to have the cameras pan the chamber and show the empty House.

It was held that under the Rule, the Speaker had the authority to do this. But O'Neill failed to tell the Republicans what he was doing. Two days later O'Neill's instruction was put into action during a special order speech. It was spotted on the monitors in the Republican Cloakroom and a note was passed to the Republican then speaking, Bob Walker, once of Gingrich's group - who attacked the Speaker's actions live on air.  A massive row broke out when the House next met and Speaker O'Neill said he took the action because Gingrich had misled viewers by "stepping aside, debating and pointing - as if there were people on the floor - asking. 'why don't you get up and answer?' He added 'a more low thing I have never seen'.

This last remark played in Gingrich's hands. He demanded a 'point of personal privilege' on the following day to respond. In the midst of that statement tempers flared and then, in the words of John A Farrell, "O'Neill lost it. "My personal opinion is this: You deliberately stood in that well before an empty House and challenged these people, and you challenged their Americanism, and it is the lowest thing I have ever seen in my 32 years in Congress." This was a personal insult - and Trent Lott, the Minority Whip rose and demanded "that the Speaker's words be taken down." In Lott's words ['Herding Cats'] "with that, all action on the floor of the House stops automatically. The words were taken down and handed to the Parliamentarian. I knew we had O'Neill. The chamber grew as quiet as a church. Mobley (in the Chair) had to rule that his colleague, the speaker of the House of Representatives, was out of order. That ruling brought a swift and difficult punishment: O'Neill was immediately barred from the floor for the rest of the day. He couldn't utter another word.

I let the Democrats stew for a couple of minutes, then moved that the speaker's words be expunged and that the House resume its normal business' (Farrell described it thus 'Lott, with gleeful magnanimity, asked that the Speaker be absolved of that humiliating punishment' [of being banned from speaking for the rest of the day])

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According to Rule V broadcasts made available under the rule may not be used for political or commercial purposes