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Yet there are signs that we are uncomfortably near this level of inaudibility right now. All the evidence from recent surveys indicates that most Americans know little about what Congress is supposed to do under our Constitution, or how Congress actually decides public policy questions. Nevertheless, the polls also suggest that Americans are increasingly dissatisfied with congressional performance.
Congress obviously is not coming through loud and clear. Surely, with faith in congressional effectiveness at a new low, it is time for us to do everything possible to let the people know what Congress is doing—and why it acts as it does in their behalf.
Whether Congress can be heard and understood clearly becomes even more critical in light of the extensive and highly sophisticated use of media techniques by the executive branch. Presidential requests for prime network television time are routine—and routinely granted. The capability of executive agencies to project their views is staggering—and their capability almost certainly will continue to grow with each new administration and with each new advance in communications technology.
In part, of course, the blame for the existing imbalance in communication capabilities lies in Congress itself. Congress has appropriated the money over the years to expand executive public information programs. But aside from the activities of individual Members of Congress, congressional initiatives toward communication with the public have been few and far between. Only rarely have congressional spokesmen sought and gained access to the broadcast media to respond to Presidential proposals or to alert the public to Presidential attempts to strengthen the Oval Office at the expense of the People's Branch.
Whoever or whatever is to blame, the significant fact is that the gap between the communications capability of the two branches is far too wide, if we are to maintain the balance of powers that is so close to the heart of our democratic system.
A Congress unable to project its voice much beyond the banks of the Potomac—to be heard and understood only dimly outside Washington, D.C.—can be neither representative nor responsive. A Congress able only to whisper, no matter how intelligently, cannot check and balance the power of the Executive or safeguard the liberty of the individual citizen.
Let me emphasize this point: I am not advocating any kind of slick public relations program for Congress, and I am certain that all members of the Joint Committee would join me in rejecting any such notion. We are aware that Congress has its shortcomings. We are not interested in managing the news, Madison Avenue imagemaking, or in packaging the Congress for a hard-sell campaign through the media.
But I am convinced that we must now consider methods, consistent with this institution's lawmaking function, which could permit Congress to bring more meaningful information more directly to more of our citizens. Certainly, we must at this time carefully examine any customs or other aspects of our operation that might discourage the news media or the public generally from seeing—and understanding—the activities and role of the National Legislature.
Our background study for these hearings has identified a number of possibilities, such as opening House and Senate floor debate to broadcast coverage, providing an information service making it easier for journalists to keep track of what is taking place in Congress, and encouraging congressional committees to hold more hearings outside of the Capitol. Other possibilities undoubtedly will be identified in the course of our hearings, which in any event are not designed to build a case for any specific proposal or course of action. What we intend to do is to develop a body of information related to three basic questions:
How can the institutional role and activities of Congress be more fully and accurately covered in the news media?
How can spokesmen for Congress gain direct access more readily to the broadcast media to present congressional points of view ?
And, finally, what additional facilities, staff, and other supporting services, if any, are required to provide Congress with more adequate institutional capability in the area of mass communications?
We will seek answers to these questions from Members of the House and Senate who have long been interested in the communications problems of Congress and from witnesses experienced in corporate media management, daily journalism practices, public opinion analysis, media criticism, broadcast coverage of State legislatures and the United Nations, and academic experts in the field of congressional operations and constitutional law.
Congressman Brooks, we are delighted you were able to come over and participate in the opening of these hearings. Please proceed in any way you wish in your opening statement. STATEMENT OF HON. JACK BROOKS, VICE CHAIRMAN, A U.S.
REPRESENTATIVE FROM THE STATE OF TEXAS Representative BROOKS. Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman. It is a distinct privilege and honor to associate with you, with Congressman Cleveland and others on this fascinating and interesting Joint Committee.
The latest Harris survey indicates that public opinion of the Congress has fallen to the lowest level he has ever recorded—69 percent of the electorate think that Congress does a poor job of protecting and looking after their interests.
On seven specific issues, from Watergate to the energy crisis to controlling inflation, 71 to 88 percent of the people are very unhappy with congressional performance.
Certainly, Congress has its faults. But most Members of Congress are honest and hardworking, intelligent and completely dedicated to representing their States or districts. And, this institution, by and large, does move with reasonable speed—and a concern for the factsand a serious desire to accommodate all or most all conflicting interests on any issue. Congress is a much more effective and responsive body than most people seem to believe.
The Joint Committee on Congressional Operations began to examine the communications needs of Congress in December 1972, with a study designed to
(1) Describe the existing imbalance between executive and legislative branch communications capabilities;
(2) To identify and analyze some of the consequences of that imbalance; and
(3) To suggest some ways that Congress might communicate more effectively the nature of its institutional role and day-to-day
activities. Let me briefly give you some of the findings of our study:
Because the prime sources for information about government and politics are television news, radio, newspapers, and news magazines, congressional access to and use of the news media is critical.
The existing imbalance in communications capability between the executive and legislative branches poses a distinct threat to the balance of powers that lies at the heart of our constitutional system of Government.
The study also identifies a number of concepts and ideas that concerned Members of Congress, and those experienced and interested in mass communications and the Congress, have proposed as ways of dealing with the problem.
Although we need to utilize the media to convey a better understanding and image of the Congress, we must carefully consider whether the means that are suggested actually would achieve the desired results.
The most common suggestion for this purpose is that there be audio and visual coverage of the Chamber proceedings. I question whether this would increase or decrease the public's understanding. I suggest rather that such coverage for the most part would be confusing and of no interest at all. Gavel-to-gavel coverage of the proceedings would be similar to continuous coverage of hospital operating rooms for the purpose of improving the image and understanding of the medical profession.
Congress is constantly being urged to correct the imbalance between its coverage and that of the President. In this vein, we must seriously question whether there is, in fact, such an imbalance. Let us bear in mind that the President represents a very evident focal point for media attention, while the Congress is composed of 539 independent individuals. Although there is the leadership in both Houses, it is obvious that no one person can speak for all of the Members and rarely for the majority.
If we consider the Congress as one entity with many voices, a casual review of a daily paper will reveal that the alleged imbalance is at best debatable. On any given day there are several items on the President and several on various Members of the Congress. Clearly no one Member, with 500,000 constituents or if a Senator, an average of 2 million, can expect equal coverage with an individual who has 200 million constituents.
To look at the problem on the basis of the attention given the executive branch vis-a-vis the Congress, again let us recognize that this is comparing one bureaucracy with several million individuals generating news, compared to a bureauracy of less than 20,000.
Let us look at the positive side of this balance problem. The Congress has direct contact with its constituency. Virtually every Member spends a considerable portion of his time in direct contact with the American people. Almost every American receives at least one letter from a Congressman in any year. With the American public divided into 439 units, there is a systematic way for the Congress to maintain direct contact with the American public. In fact it is this close contact which has given rise to the political scientists' reference to the Congress as “the People's Branch."
These hearings should be aimed at actual improvements rather than superficial change. Although we note the President's apparent ability to gain prime time for a policy message, I know of no instance where the Speaker or the majority leaders have requested coverage for such purposes; therefore, a quantum comparison of the relative coverage is of questionable validity. I feel that the time afforded the Congress to rebut Presidential inaccuracies is inadequate, but then I recognize that there are very few rebuttals that are as newsworthy as the original statement.
I raise these points to emphasize the complexity of the problem. The realities of the public's perception of the Congress—and they are not comforting-plus the findings of our study, make it imperative that we begin discovering how Americans can come to know more about the role and responsibilities of their Congress, and how Congress can communicate its views and the meaning of its diversity to the people more effectively.
Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman.
I ask unanimous consent to revise and extend my remarks and to be able to add some additional material.
Chairman METCALF. Without objection that permission will be granted.
Permission to all Members will be granted to revise and extend their opening remarks.
We are delighted that you are able to be here and to come away from a busy committee this morning. I hope you can stay, but we do understand your time problem.
One of the members of our Joint Committee who has served long and faithfully is Congressman Cleveland.
Congressman Cleveland, do you have a statement ?
STATEMENT OF HON. JAMES C. CLEVELAND, A U.S. REPRESENTA
TIVE FROM THE STATE OF NEW HAMPSHIRE Representative CLEVELAND. Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I do have a statement. However, out of respect for our witnesses I will not read the entire statement, but will summarize it.
Some of the points in my statement have already been covered by Congressman Brooks.
I hope that out of these very important hearings at least one basic principle will emerge with renewed force. It is this: The best way for Congress to improve its public image is to improve its public performance.
Communications is a medium. It transmits. It cannot consistently manufacture facts, nor can it, for long, distort or suppress them-at least in a free society with a free and competitive press.
I cite the present energy situation as an example of what I mean when I say that our public performance is not what it should be.
Consider just this one fact, that there are more than 17 separate committees or subcommittees of the House and Senate that are now
addressing energy problems, and this can only serve to create confusion for the press, the public, and to blur the image Congress projects as it attempts to cope with this problem.
In my statement, I emphasize that to improve congressional performance, we have got to address ourselves to such matters as campaign reform, and we have to deal more swiftly with some of the issues of the day that are important to the people of the country.
Mr. Chairman, I also point out in my statement that the desire to facilitate mass media communications entry into the Halls of Congress is not exactly a new concept, and as early as 1966, in a book that I published, a chapter dealt with this precise proposal.
In my statement, Mr. Chairman, I also point out that Congress has got to exercise more oversight than it does.
Sometimes, there is a feeling in Congress that when we pass a new program, we have handled the problem and that is the end of it.
The oversight function of congressional committees is enormously important, and insofar as it has been disregarded, I think this reflects on our public performance. At the present time, the Public Works Committee has just concluded 3 days of oversight hearings on the water pollution legislation, the principal author of which will be our next witness, Senator Muskie, and Senator I think you are going to be startled when you find some of the conclusions that our oversight hearings have brought to us.
It is very true that the administration of this legislation by the administration has been faulty, but time and again we come back to the fact that the congressional mandates in the legislation have added to the problem.
There are many other reforms—and I will not take the time now to detail them-in the effort I feel should be made to improve congressional performance, so that we may regain a measure of public esteem.
We obviously have to address the matter of restructuring committees. I have already mentioned the fact that there are 17 committees coping with energy; there are staffing problems; there are budget reform problems, and a good many others.
I conclude my statement, Mr. Chairman, by pointing out that if we are going to restore public confidence in the Congress, we must also exercise as individual Members of the Congress a little self-restraint in refraining from the sometimes easy criticism of our endeavor.
Mr. Chairman, I include for the record of our hearings at this point a useful summary of some of the factors involved in our study which was prepared by Editorial Research Reports and published in yesterday's-February 19—Christian Science Monitor.
[The article follows:]
CONGRESS EYES EQUAL SHARE OF MEDIA TIME
(By Editorial Research Reports) Does the presidency command more ready access to the mass media because it has become more powerful than Congress? Or is intensive media coverage of the executive branch largely responsible for the President's expanded powers?
The Joint Committee on Congressional Operations will deal with these questions when it opens hearings later this month.
President Nixon's recent State of the Union message was carried live on U.S. nationwide television and analyzed exhaustively in the following day's newspapers.