Tuesday, March 19, 2019, marked forty years since the first broadcast of a session of the United States House of Representatives went live on C-SPAN in 1979. Seven years later, Senate Minority Leader Robert Byrd introduced legislation to allow for the broadcast of sessions of the Senate on C-SPAN. Prior to the approval of this measure, television cameras had only been allowed on the floor of the Senate once for the swearing in of Vice President Nelson Rockefeller on December 19, 1974. On June 2, 1986, Senator Robert C. Byrd stood at his desk and delivered a speech as the cameras rolled for the first broadcast of the Senate in session.
Many early efforts to introduce live broadcast, whether by television or radio, of House and Senate sessions maintained each chamber’s respective right to restrict access at times when the subject of debate required sensitivity or privacy. Measures considered in the House granted the Speaker the privilege of barring cameras from the chamber. Even as the presence of the camera in committee hearings became more common in the 1950s and 60s, it was the prerogative of the chairmen of those committees to grant permission to broadcast. West Virginia Congressman Harley O. Staggers, chairman of the House Interstate and Foreign Commerce Committee, which included the Federal Communications Commission under its purview, was a supporter of opening the business of Congress to the public through television, giving speeches on numerous occasions expressing his support. Two of his statements can be read by clicking on the images below.
Live broadcast of Senate proceedings did not begin for seven years after C-SPAN began carrying sessions of the House of Representatives. West Virginia Senator Robert C. Byrd, who was Majority Leader of the Senate when C-SPAN began its coverage of the House, became a chief supporter of bringing the Senate to the American people through television. In 1974 as Congress prepared to investigate President Richard Nixon over the Watergate scandal, Senator Byrd introduced the bill to televise the proceedings of the Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities (known as the Ervin Committee). Similarly in 1977, he authorized (as Majority Leader) the radio broadcast of the Panama Canal Treaty hearings. In 1985, Senator Byrd took the effort to the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration and found bi-partisan support in the committee's chairman, Maryland Senator Charles “Mac” Mathias. In 1985, Senator Byrd testified before Chairman Mathias and the Rules Committee in favor of allowing C-SPAN to begin live broadcasts of Senate floor sessions. The measure passed and on June 2, 1986, the cameras rolled for the first time as Senator Byrd rose and addressed the chamber.