Congressional livestreaming gave us a new window into personal democracy in America


Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and the Republican leadership were criticized yesterday for shutting down the video feed to C-SPAN during a sit-in by House Democrats over a vote on proposed gun control legislation. As Sunlight’s Melissa Yeager noted on the blog, while the move was neither unprecedented nor C-SPAN’s decision, it was a troubling decision for transparency. Selective transparency is not open government.

What was unprecedented was what happened next: Members of Congress used smartphones to livestream their protest on the House floor using Twitter, Periscope and Facebook Live, enabling the public to see and hear what was happening — and then C-SPAN picked up those feeds. If you’ve been online today or picked up a newspaper, you’ve no doubt heard about this, as dozens of media outlets reported how social media companies were suddenly connecting the public to what was happening in Congress.

Broadly speaking, that’s a good thing: The public should be able to see what’s happening on the floor of Congress on C-SPAN, whether the House is in session or lawmakers are engaging in civil disobedience against House rules. We’ve now seen how 21st-century technology could be used to route around a 20th-century policy in an 18th-century institution. How the past 24 hours will change Congress remains to be seen, but it’s fair to say that June 22, 2016, was a tipping point for how legislators could personally use consumer technology to directly inform the public. 

While aspects of the past 24 hours may have felt chaotic or looked undignified to some observers — and the sit-in was ultimately ineffective, in terms of forcing a vote on any legislative measures before Congress adjourned for the July Fourth holiday — this is what the present of government transparency looks like.

It’s also what participatory democracy now looks like: mediated and mingled through smartphone screens, social networks and apps, uploaded and distributed over wireless networks and cell towers instead of television stations and radio networks.

That doesn’t mean that the public should have to settle for members of Congress using their cellphones. We can and should build something better, together.

Webcams installed in both houses of Congress broadcasting live feeds to the world over fiber connections that are not subject to partisan control would make sense. So would a shift in Congress’ own rules for credentialed media and the public sitting in the galleries.

Historic changes come in fits and spurts. Sometimes they are catalyzed by changes in law or court rulings. Sometimes wars and natural disasters galvanize action. Today, rapid advances in technology and mass adoption of social media for news and political purposes have created the opportunity, context and demand for something more than a couple of official video feeds broadcast to C-SPAN’s channels and website.

Congress should learn from what happened last night and rethink how its rules should change with the times, just as every other institution has.