Cameras as cash machines worrying Capitol Hill's reformers
Lindsey Graham was pissed.
He shook a fist in the air, his face red and body stiff. Graham had had enough.
The whole thing was "crap," "a charade" and "despicable," the South Carolina Republican said.
By the fifth day of Senate hearings for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, Graham was done with Democrats harping on what he considered to be a slanderous sexual assault allegation.
"This is the most unethical sham since I've been in politics," Graham said, pointing a finger across the dais of the Judiciary Committee.
The clip went viral. Fox News ate it up. And for Graham, the soundbites paid off handsomely.
During the next month, his campaign received $319,000 in large donations (more than $200) – or five times what he raised the previous month. More than 80 percent of the money came from people outside Graham's home state.
For the senator, who's seeking a fourth term next year, the takeaway is clear: Full-throated histrionics, when broadcast live for millions and replayed for days on cable news, can turn into easy money.
But for those focused on how Congress is stymied by partisanship and consumed by fundraising, the moment delivered this counterintuitive message: While putting Congress on TV has brought transparency to the legislative process, it has also created a prime venue for the sort of grandstanding that galvanizes a political base, divides a country and raises a whole lot of money.
Graham is not the first lawmaker whose outburst paid out in viral clips and campaign cash.
Just one person gave Bernie Sanders a donation above $200 in the month before a December 2010 filibuster, against an extension of tax cuts, turned him into a progressive celebrity. Within a month, his Vermont campaign coffers were $180,000 richer thanks to 308 large donations. He received 37 on the day of his Senate stemwinder alone.
And in February, arch-conservative Jim Jordan's conspiracy-theory-riddled character attack on former Trump fixer Michael Cohen at a House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing awoke a time of sleepy fundraising: Nearly $100,000 from 153 large donations poured into the Ohio Republican's account in the month after the hearing. He raised just $18,000 from 14 such donations the month before.
Of course, there were no cameras to record Preston Brooks, a states' rights congressman, bludgeoning abolitionist Charles Sumner with a cane on the Senate floor in 1856. Who knows how much cash would have funneled into Brooks' coffers had the cameras been rolling.
What the reformers have wrought
But all the networks can now catch every moment of Congress, thanks to reforms in the 1970s that authorized cameras in committee hearings and ultimately live broadcasts of floor debates in the House and Senate.
Pulling the plug on each chamber's six cameras or blacking out congressional hearings won't happen. But members of the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress seem universally disgusted by the cameras' impact, specifically how they've been weaponized for made-for-TV partisanship now feeding a divided country and 24-hour news cycle.
The panel's hearing in March devolved into personal tales of camera-bashing. John Lawrence, a former chief of staff to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, said the decision four decades ago to open Congress to the cameras created the "unintended consequence" of fueling partisanship.
He urged limiting or even ending so-called one-minute speeches and special orders — the times when members get an open mic to speak about whatever they want and too often descend into partisan squabble-fests.
"When people out in the real world turn on the TV and they see members of Congress excoriating each other in the most hyper-partisan political way, they don't make the distinction between that and serious debate," Lawrence said. "That deteriorates the public's regard for the institution."
Few on the committee disagreed.
When Republican Dan Newhouse of Washington, who said he's long opposed cameras in Congress, turned to his colleagues and asked, "When was the last time we really had an honest, true debate in this institution?" the room fell quiet.
Democrat Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri lamented how members routinely use the floor to just "insult everybody" and that such incivility is rewarded. He pointed to the example of Republican Joe Wilson of South Carolina, who was reprimanded by the House after yelling "You lie!" at President Barack Obama during his 2009 health care speech to Congress but more than doubled his typical fundraising on the way to winning re-election the next year. Wilson is still in office.
"I don't know how we can fix that unless we understand that all of us are contributing to this dysfunctionality," Cleaver said.
Talking straight to the cameras
A body of political science research has linked extremist behavior to successful fundraising, meaning constructive dialogue isn't easy in an environment where loud mouths win dollars and re-election.
"There is a longstanding pattern in which individual donors reward extremist position-taking," University of Maryland political scientist Frances Lee said in an email. "There is no way to change the fact that ideological donors favor members who make grand gestures that push their buttons."
Like Lawrence, Lee raised a similar transparency-can-be-a-problem argument to the committee at a recent hearing.
"Limiting television cameras in committee rooms and adopting other rules that prohibit members from bringing in props that can facilitate media stunts," she said, could help Congress thwart grandstanding-for-dollars.
While no one is seriously pushing to remove the cameras, some reformers have pressed members to find more ways to meet away from the lenses.
Mark Strand, president of the Congressional Institute, a nonprofit that works to help lawmakers better serve their constituents, told the committee that members needed more "private and informal meetings and briefings" to build trust with one another "out of the public eye."
"That's key to a committee holding together and doing something in a bipartisan way," Strand said.
Aside from fundraising vehicles, cameras have become a convenient way for members to both watch their colleagues and avoid them.
"We very rarely talk to each other," noted Zoe Lofgren of California, a Democrat on the modernization committee who was a House staffer in the 1970s before the cameras were installed. Back then, members had to go to the House floor to hear a debate.
"And that meant members were on the floor listening to each other," she said. "As soon as TV came on the scene, no one came to the floor ... people no longer had to deal with each other in the way that had existed before that."
Chairman Derek Kilmer says he doesn't view cameras and a working democracy as mutually exclusive.
"Inherent to the legislative process is negotiation that doesn't always happen in the glare of the cameras," the Washington Democrat said, "but I don't think having a transparent process, having an open process, is inherently in conflict with having a functional legislative body."
The panel's top Republican, Tom Graves of Georgia, said cameras are crucial for transparency but members could benefit from time away from the spotlight to build relationships.
"It's really hard to develop public policy in one-minute sound bites – back and forth, back and forth," Graves said.
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Stacey Abrams, who gained national attention during her failed 2018 bid for the Georgia governorship, is urging Congress to restore federal oversight of elections in some states.
Had she won the extremely close contest, Abrams would now be the first black female governor in America. She and her fellow Democrats maintain the election was not fairly conducted in part because her Republican opponent, Brian Kemp, was secretary of state – and therefore Georgia's top elections official – at the time.
Abrams was the most prominent witness Tuesday at a House Judiciary subcommittee hearing on civil rights and elections in the six years since the Supreme Court eviscerated the heart of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. In Shelby County v. Holder, the court struck down the part of the law requiring advance federal approval before any changes in voting laws or practices in parts of country with a history of voter discrimination. All of Georgia had been subjected to this so-called preclearance requirement, which the court ruled is now unconstitutionally outdated.
Calling for Congress to come up with a new system for preclearance that could withstand another such challenge, Abrams said that jurisdictions formerly covered by the law "have raced to reinstate or create new hurdles to voter registration, access to the ballot box, and ballot counting."
Abrams said a voter registration group she created in Georgia, which was active in her 2018 race, submitted thousands of forms to Kemp's office and soon discovered "artificial delays" in processing those registrations. The state's requirement that names on registrations exactly match records of other government agencies sidetracked thousands more.
Both practices had a greater impact on black citizens, she said, because they are more likely to register through third-party groups like the one she founded, Fair Fight Action.
And both, she said, would have been stopped in advance under preclearance.
Abrams also charged that Kemp improperly purged names from the voter rolls.
"By denying the real and present danger posed by those who see voters of color as a threat to be neutralized rather than as fellow citizens to be engaged," Abrams said, the six-year-old Supreme Court ruling "has destabilized the whole of our democratic experiment."
After the election, Abrams created Fair Fight Action to combat the tactics used against her. It has also sued the Georgia secretary of state and is asking the federal courts to revive preclearance for any election law changes in her state.
House Democratic leaders have written legislation creating a new set of rules for the Justice Department to use in determining which states must get such preclearance, and it has more than enough sponsors to pass. But the bill would almost certainly be shelved by the Republicans in charge in the Senate.
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The National Institute for Civil Discourse has a message for the 20 Democratic presidential candidates who will participate in debates on Wednesday and Thursday nights: Remember first grade.
In other words, don't poke your neighbor, wait your turn, and if you can't say something nice, don't say anything.
Seriously, the institute, which studies and promotes civility in political debate is reminding candidates of standards it developed in 2015 in advance of the last presidential election season.
They say that politicians living up to basic standards of civility, especially when they're on national television, is essential if the angry tribal nature of America discourse is ever going to ease. "Zingers and insults might get headlines, but it's leading to a culture of candidates who stand out by throwing punches and amplifying the polarization of our politics," said Keith Allred, the institute's executive director.
The guidelines for the candidates are:
- Be respectful of others in speech and behavior.
- Answer the question being asked by the moderator.
- Make ideas and feelings known without disrespecting others.
- Take responsibility for past and present behavior, speech and actions.
- Stand against incivility when faced with it.
The institute also developed guidelines for the moderators of the debates. (NBC and MSNBC are providing the ones for these debates.) They are:
- Address uncivil behavior by naming it and moderating the conversation to move toward more respectful dialogue.
- Enforce debate rules equally.
- Hold candidates accountable by challenging each candidate to speak the truth and act with integrity.
- Treat all candidates equally in regard to the complexity of questions and debate rules.
- Be respectful when interacting with candidates.
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