Opening the Doors to Debate

Today’s post comes from Kate Mollan, archivist in the Center for Legislative Archives in Washington, DC. 

Resolution to Open the Doors of the Senate Chamber, April 29, 1790. (Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives)

Resolution to Open the Doors of the Senate Chamber, April 29, 1790. (Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives)

From the earliest days of the First Congress there were clamors for the Senate to open the doors to its chamber so that the public and press could witness the proceedings. Unlike the House of Representatives, the early Senate chose to hold its deliberations in secret.

On April 29, 1790, a resolution to open the chamber was made. A day later, the Senate rejected it. This was the first of several unsuccessful motions to open the chamber during the first few years of the Senate’s history.

As there is no record of the debate, the Senate’s reasons for maintaining secrecy are largely unknown. However, it is likely there was concern that the impulse to speak to the assembled public and use more impassioned rhetoric might impede doing the people’s business in an expedient fashion. By keeping its doors closed, the Senate was following the example of the Continental and Confederation Congresses as well as the Constitutional Convention.

Yeas and Nays on Motion to Open the Doors of the Senate, February 18, 1794. (Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives)

Yeas and Nays on Motion to Open the Doors of the Senate, February 18, 1794. (Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives)

Meeting in secret also meant greater freedom of discussion. Many senators looked with disdain at the tumultuous House and accused the members of playing to the gallery rather than focusing on the business at hand.

Moreover, most senators felt that the Senate Journal, the constitutionally mandated record of Senate proceedings, was adequate for providing sufficient information to the press and public. The Journal provides the minutes of floor proceedings, including votes, but does not record debate or speeches of individual senators.

The movement to open the doors was led by state legislatures, which appointed the senators for their states. Many states believed that there should be increased accountability. Critics of closed-door proceedings protested that the Senate Journal was not adequate, and that by withholding the deliberations from public view, senators were less answerable to the citizens of their states.

The press accused the Senate with aristocratic arrogance in not allowing reporters or the public to listen to debate. They argued that abuses of power might go undetected.

It wasn’t until 1794 that a resolution finally passed to open the Senate chamber. In December of 1795, after suitable visitors’ galleries were constructed at Congress Hall in Philadelphia, where Congress met from 1790 to 1800 before moving to the District of Columbia, members of the press and public were allowed to hear debate from senators for the first time.

Debates were subsequently summarized and published by Philadelphia newspapers, which sent reporters to cover the proceedings from the gallery. Because of the difficulty in hearing all the activity from the gallery, in 1802 stenographers were allowed onto the floor of the chamber.

Soon the National Intelligencer, a Washington newspaper, began to regularly print verbatim debates. Future publishers of that newspaper, Joseph Gales and William Winston Seaton, later expanded their coverage of debates in the publication Register of Debates, which was a forerunner to the Congressional Record.

Letter to the Honorable Ernest E. Garcia, Sergeant at Arms, from Charles McC. Mathias, Jr., Chairman of the Rules Committee, July 18, 1986, page 1. (Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives)

Letter to the Honorable Ernest E. Garcia, Sergeant at Arms, from Charles McC. Mathias, Jr., Chairman of the Rules Committee, July 18, 1986, page 1. (Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives)

More recently, in the 1980s, the Senate faced another difficult decision: whether to allow television coverage of its deliberations. Televised proceedings of the House of Representatives began in 1979, and from 1981 through 1986, the Senate debated the issue of allowing television cameras in the chamber.

The arguments over TV coverage were similar to those made almost 200 years earlier about opening the doors to the chamber.

Advocates, such as Tennessee Senator Albert Gore, touted increased transparency, more informed debate, and an increase in the Senate’s visibility among the public.

Opponents argued the temptation to play to the gallery would be too great; that individual senators would give more speeches of a partisan nature, furthering their own narrow causes; and the television cameras would threaten the customs and traditions of the Senate.

“My fundamental objection to television is rooted in my deep concern that television in the Senate will result in an increase in political expediency at the expense of statesmanship,” said Louisiana Democrat Russell B. Long.

Letter to the Honorable Ernest E. Garcia, Sergeant at Arms, from Charles McC. Mathias, Jr., Chairman of the Rules Committee, July 18, 1986, page 2. (Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives)

Letter to the Honorable Ernest E. Garcia, Sergeant at Arms, from Charles McC. Mathias, Jr., Chairman of the Rules Committee, July 18, 1986, page 2. (Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives)

The Senate had previously televised special events. In 1974, television cameras were allowed in the Senate chamber for the first time, to show the swearing-in of Nelson Rockefeller as Vice President.

Since the 1950s, television cameras captured committee hearings of great public interest, such as the hearings of the Special Committee on Organized Crime in Interstate Commerce (the Kefauver Committee). There was still some reluctance, however, on the part of the more senior senators to allow full television coverage of the Senate’s regular business.

In 1986 that all changed. After a two-month experiment of televising chamber proceedings, more senators grew comfortable with the idea of television. The Senate voted to allow permanent television coverage of the proceedings in the chamber.
Like the House, the Senate controlled the cameras and made the footage available to the C-SPAN network, where a nationwide audience can tune in to watch Senate floor proceedings broadcast live.

Critics may still decry the effect of openness on the Senate, as well as on the House, but the push for accountability and transparency continues in the digital age, with new technologies ensuring that “to the end that such of the citizens of the United States as may choose to hear the debates of this house may have an opportunity of so doing,” as the first resolution to open the Senate’s doors urged.

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