WASHINGTON -- I decided to spend some time in the visitors' galleries on Capitol Hill, to see firsthand what gridlock looks like.
On the Senate floor, Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, was delivering a passionate speech about interest rates on student loans. "I just pray and beg my colleagues," he said, "please pass this. Keep student loan rates manageable."
When he finished the chamber fell silent. Why? Because none of Brown's colleagues was present. He was addressing 99 empty chairs.
Sparse attendance in Congress is an historical fact, but this scene was depressing nonetheless. The situation has gradually worsened as television and the Internet make it easier for members to stay in touch without actually setting foot in the chambers.
On the House side, Budget Committee chairman, Paul Ryan, R-Wis., was engaged in his favorite pursuit: slashing. "We're eliminating government slush funds to stop bailouts," he said of the GOP plan, "we're controlling runaway, unchecked spending."
It was hard to tell if the few dozen House members in attendance were listening to Ryan because most were busy with their own favorite pursuits: tapping away on iPads and smartphones.
One of the first things Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, did after becoming Speaker was revise House policy to permit mobile devices on the floor. The new rule allows electronics unless their use "impairs decorum," but policymakers stopped short of adding a requirement for House members to actually pay attention.
The day I was there a glitch in the system blocked Apple products — iPhones and iPads — connected to the official House network from receiving emails. This caused quite a fuss, with the newspaper Roll Call quoting a Democratic spokesman as saying, "Members of Congress have become more and more reliant on mobile technology for floor proceedings."
Is that a good thing? Congress has an approval rating of about 10 percent, so you'd think avoiding distractions and showing up more often would be good first steps in improving public perception if not the actual legislative box score.
But the public doesn't get a clear picture of this on television. C-SPAN, the non-profit cable service providing coverage from the Hill, uses video feeds supplied by House and Senate TV departments — and they avoid showing vast expanses of empty seats or members distracted by handheld gadgets.
House rules require head-on coverage of members at the podium and forbid reaction shots in the chamber. As a result, according to C-SPAN's chief Brian Lamb, the public gets "a less-than-complete view." In a letter to Speaker Boehner, Lamb called for a better "journalistic product" by allowing additional robotic cameras that would be controlled by C-SPAN's staff. Boehner, like Democrat Nancy Pelosi before him, said no.
One exception comes during the annual State of the Union speech, when television networks are allowed to determine the coverage. That yielded an infamous screenshot a few years back of Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., fiddling with his Blackberry during the president's speech. Cantor said he was taking notes.
I came away from my visit feeling like I had just been in a college lecture hall where the twin plagues are poor attendance by some, and relentless use of mobile devices by others.
I contacted a C-SPAN executive for an update on efforts to improve coverage, and was told that the service has recently added High Definition. So? "If you look closely," the gentleman said, "you can see which members are using cell phones."
As more voters get HD, approval ratings for Congress might disappear entirely.
Peter Funt is a writer and speaker and can be reached at www.CandidCamera.com
©2012 Peter Funt. Columns distributed exclusively by: Cagle Cartoons, Inc., newspaper syndicate. For more info contact Cari Dawson Bartley. Email [email protected], (800) 696-7561