Few households in the United States owned television sets in November 1947 when the Senate, for the first time, allowed the televising of a committee hearing. From the 1950s through the 1970s, televised Senate hearings played a major part in shaping public opinion on topics ranging from organized crime and alleged communist infiltration of federal agencies to the war in Vietnam and the Watergate scandals.
Anticipating an impeachment trial for President Richard Nixon in 1974, the Senate quietly made provisions for the first live television coverage from its chamber. Several months after Nixon’s resignation made a trial unnecessary, the Senate took advantage of those preparations to telecast Nelson Rockefeller’s December 19 swearing-in as vice president.
In 1977, the Senate took a half-step toward television coverage by allowing radio broadcasts of the 1978 debates on the Panama Canal Treaties. When the House of Representatives decided in 1979 to offer gavel-to-gavel coverage of its floor proceedings, pressure intensified on the Senate to do the same.
During his first week as Majority Leader in 1981, Tennessee Republican Howard Baker introduced legislation to authorize permanent live coverage of floor proceedings. He was aware, however, that influential senior senators firmly opposed such a move. Rhode Island Democrat Claiborne Pell feared that “the presence of television will lead to more, longer, and less relevant speeches, to more posturing by Senators and to even less useful debate and efficient legislating than we have today.” Conceding that television in the House seemed to be operating smoothly, he cautioned that “the unique character of the Senate and its very different rules and methods of floor operation make such a venture in the Senate much less likely to be positive.”
By early 1986, Majority Leader Bob Dole and Democratic Leader Robert C. Byrd worried that the lack of television coverage was transforming the Senate into the nation’s forgotten legislative body. House members were becoming far more visible than senators to their constituents. The two leaders eventually engineered a vote in which the Senate agreed to a three-month trial period, with live national coverage to begin on June 2, 1986. Within weeks, the Senate voted to make this coverage permanent.
Not since the Senate had first voted nearly two centuries earlier to end its policy of conducting all sessions behind closed doors had the body made such a large stride towards improved public awareness of its procedures and activities.