Rep. Peters Pushes Back On House Rules After Republicans Vote To Fine Live Streaming From House Floor
On Tuesday, the 115th Congress passed a new rules package that includes an effective ban on representatives live streaming video or posting photos from the floor of the House.
The controversial provision was proposed last month by the Republican-led Congress, and passed primarily on party lines when presented as part of a larger rules package. The attempts to deter broadcasts from smartphones and other devices will include an initial $500 fine for a first offense and $2,500 for each incident thereafter, which would be docked from the lawmaker's salary.
U.S. Congressman Scott Peters, a Democrat representing California's 52nd congressional district, told IBTimes the rule represented a larger issue in which the "whole idea of information control is being used in a really political way."
Rep. Peters was at the forefront of the issue, which began when he decided to use the Twitter-owned live streaming app Periscope to broadcast a Congressional sit-in that took place last June.
The protest designed to force a vote on gun control legislation was led by long-time civil rights activist Rep. John Lewis, but initially wasn't broadcast to the public because Republican leadership declared a recess after the sit-in began. C-SPAN would normally broadcast such an event on TV but its cameras are shut off when the House isn’t in session, essentially leaving the feed in the hands of the party in control of Congress.
The feed from Peters' phone from inside the House chamber was picked up by C-SPAN and broadcast in place of footage from the network's own cameras.
"We discovered in June there's an amazing new technology that really connected people to their government in a way that literally has never been seen in the history of the republic," Peters said, noting services like Periscope and Facebook Live provide an immediate public response thanks to a continuous feed of comments, reactions, and live viewer count.
While Peters said the ability to use new technology would provide the public with "access that really only members of Congress can have," the Republican leadership was moved to put in measures to discourage broadcasting from inside the House chamber.
"Unfortunately instead of seeing that as an opportunity to engage the public with their government, the leadership has seen that as a threat," Peters said. "All of us as public servants, we shouldn't be threatened by the public; we should be seeking to engage them and we have this great new technology that allows us to do just that, so I think it's a shame they not only passed on it but they banned it."
House Speaker Paul Ryan condemned the sit-in and the subsequent broadcast at the time, calling it a “publicity stunt” and an attempt to “get attention.”
But viewed alongside an attempt by Congressional Republicans to gut the independently run Office of Congressional Ethics and replace it with the Office of Congressional Complaint Review—a board led by the lawmakers that the group is intended to oversee—leads to questions about a commitment to public transparency.
"After this election in which people talked about 'draining the swamp' and how corrupt Washington is, the first action by the House Republicans is to take away the independence of the investigatory board on ethics," Peters said, comparing the Republicans to the "dog who caught the car" and are now unsure what to do with their newfound control.
"They saw the public was really angry about a lack of transparency, they're angry about a perceived lack of ethics. Just because the Republicans won the election doesn't mean the people aren't angry about that still and I think the Republicans found that out in spades," he said.
Republicans folded on their attempts to shutter the Office of Congressional Ethics in a caucus meeting held on Tuesday following a public outcry over the move, but kept the policy to fine any broadcast from the House floor.
One of Peters' proposed solutions to the limitation on new technology in the House chamber included returning control of C-SPAN cameras to the network. The congressman proposed a bill last session that would do just that, and while he admitted the proposal didn't get very far, he does plan to reintroduce it this year.
In the meantime, the advancement of technology won't slow even if its use is halted inside the House. The congressman said he expected to see adoption increase among members as social media and technology become more and more important both for communication with the public and campaigning.
"Institutions are the last to move and the slowest to change and they resist change," he said. "I think someday it will come, but a lot of the folks in the beauracracy—a beauracracy in which they've succeed—they like things the way it is."
The congressman has seen considerable success adopting new ways of connecting with the public outside of his Periscope broadcast. "I'm probably the oldest guy on Snapchat, Peters said, but he's heard from young constituents who appreciate his presence on the platform.
"We'll have to keep being creative. I hope we don't have to break any rules but it's really important to join the people with the government," he said.
Peters said he doesn't want to put the sergeant-at-arms in a position to punish him—"the thing I don't like about this is you take these people who are supposed to be non-partisan and you put them in a position of being antagonistic toward the members," he said—but acknowledged that he would consider incurring the fine if needed to provide access to the public.
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