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Streaming the Senate

House video was a success. Will the Senate follow?



No matter what you initially thought about the live video streaming of House committee meetings over the past legislative session — whether you had great expectations of transparency and open government or fears it would lead to grandstanding and other shenanigans — chances are your hopes were exceeded, your fears assuaged. The question now, looking ahead to future sessions, is if the Senate will embrace this technology as well.

The Senate may have answered that question this session by not answering it. Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson's bill to require live-streaming of Senate meetings was sent to the Senate Committee on Transportation, Technology and Legislative Affairs, where it never came up for a vote. The bill — at least in theory — had support of Senate leadership. Senate President Paul Bookout, D-Jonesboro, told Roby Brock of Talk Business, "I think we'll probably get there some day. I think in today's modern times with technology, I think we'll get there."

One thing that might be holding the Senate back is the cost. A spokesman for the Senate told me they had no cost estimates as of yet. Equipping the House chamber and four committee rooms with the technology to live-broadcast cost about $330,000. But now that the session is over you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone say it wasn't worth it. Bloggers lauded the live-streaming because it allowed them to cover news events when other matters kept them at the office. Legislators were able to look in on meetings when they couldn't make it to the Capitol. Voters were able to check on their representatives and see what kinds of questions they were asking and what kind of votes they were making.

At first, representatives had a number of reservations, chief among those the fear that fellow lawmakers would perform for the cameras. But that didn't really happen. Rep. Darrin Williams, D-Little Rock, who chaired the House Judiciary Committee, initially thought grandstanding would be an issue.

"That was a big issue at the beginning of the session and then I think folks forgot that it was on to be quite honest," Williams said. "We never talked about it after we ultimately decided to live stream, which I think was the right decision. We spent too much time worrying about it. I don't think very many people thought about it after several weeks, or even after a couple of meetings. There was also a concern that someone might be shy about asking questions. People were not shy about asking questions [in the House Judiciary Committee]."

Talk to folks around the Capitol, though, and you'll find there isn't much hope for the live broadcast of Senate meetings. The Senate is a different animal than the House. As our very own Max Brantley said in a recent blog post, "There's less debate in committee and on the floor; more is done by understanding of political realities. Bills are sent out of committee without roll calls by tacit understandings. TV might prove mystifying. On the other hand, maybe it would prompt a change in the way business is done."

And that, of course, is the aim. But it's possible some senators like the way they do business and don't want the added scrutiny. A fellow reporter told me he overheard one senator joke after a contentious vote: "And that's why we don't have live-streaming in the Senate."

But Hutchinson, R-Little Rock, doesn't think that's the case. He says that what it really comes down is that senators have a more traditional view of the body itself.

"I think they like the way the Senate operates, which is very old fashioned," Hutchinson said. "I don't think they're trying to hide anything. There's enough news coverage that nothing's hidden anyway. I don't think they want grandstanding, legislators playing to the camera. It's a very traditional institution and they like that. My opinion is, I appreciate the traditions of the Senate. But I think public access and accountability outweigh tradition. I think, probably, next session it may happen."

The live-streaming did create a sense of openness and transparency. However, let's not get carried away. The cameras do allow one to look in on the occasional committee hearing. But that's not exactly where everything gets done down at the legislature. Until there are cameras in the Capitol hallways — or the Capital Bar and Grill, for that matter — maybe all we really have is the illusion of transparency.


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