Online video access hasn’t changed how Iowa lawmakers debate, leaders say

Video access could benefit politicians by providing visibility, expert says

Published: April 2 2014 | 4:50 pm - Updated: 7 April 2014 | 3:06 pm in

Des Moines -- The Iowa Statehouse embraced new online technology two years ago when the House launched live video streaming of floor debates. The Senate quickly adopted similar video access the following year.  For Legislative leaders, the addition was a move to further open up the political process to more constituents.

However, access for constituents also means camera time for politicians and as Dennis Goldford, politics professor at Drake University, notes politicians have a reputation for not shying away from publicity.

“You never want to stand between a politician or a camera because you’ll get trampled,” he said.

Despite the additional online audience, House and Senate leaders say they haven’t noticed a significant change in how lawmakers conduct themselves on the floor but rather have seen an increased interest from citizens using the new tool.

“I think (Senators) are probably more civil towards one another knowing things are being live streamed,” said Iowa Senate President Pam Jochum, D-Dubuque. She said there was initial concern whether lawmakers would use it to grandstand but she said that hasn’t proven to be the case.

Iowa Speaker of the House Kraig Paulsen, R-Hiawatha, said he discussed possible effects of installing cameras with Speakers in other states who didn’t see a great change in their legislators.

“The whole idea was so that Iowans would have easier, more convenient access to their Legislature,” he said.

University of Iowa Associate Professor of Political Science Tim Hagle said although grandstanding can be a possible issue, it’s likely more politicians are aware of how on camera slip-ups can come back to haunt them later if they’re not careful.

Overall, Hagle and Goldford see the technology as a positive way to maintain transparency and give politicians a way to show constituents what they’ve said on important issues.

Both Jochum and Paulsen say they’re hearing from constituents who like to use the video archives.

Viewership data, now available on the Legislative website, shows how many people have clicked on archived video clips for the 2014 and 2013 legislative session. The Legislative website also includes a weekly site visit report for video access that began collecting data Sept. 30, 2013.

The Senate’s top video is the heated argument between Sen. Mark Chelgren, R-Ottumwa, and Sen. Tom Courtney, D-Burlington on March 4, which received 334 hits as of Wednesday evening.

One of the most viewed House clips is a January 29 clip where Iowa native and well-known opera singer, Simon Estes, visited and sang the national anthem. The video has 182 hits. A January 23 clip has received over 400 hits but data from a legislative computer employee indicates the number may not be reflective of the actual interest in the clip as one individual is likely responsible for a good portion of clicks.

Iowa is on par with other states providing audio and video access. All 50 states, Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico provide live video or audio of floor proceedings, according to data from the National Conference of State Legislatures.  Archived webcasts of floor proceedings are available in 39 states, Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico.

The House installation of six video cameras cost $130,000, which was offset by a $100,000 IowAccess grant. The Senate installed five video cameras in the chamber that cost more than $200,000, which was also offset by a $135,000 IowAccess grant.

Goldford said the video access could benefit politicians by providing visibility to not only their constituents but other Iowa citizens, especially if they’re trying to run for higher office such as governor or a U.S. House or Senate seat.  He noted when state Sen. Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale, ran against U.S. Rep. Leonard Boswell for a Third District seat in 2010. Goldford said Zaun did well in Polk County but not in the rest of the district.

“This gives people the opportunity to find out who these candidates are in other parts of the state,” he said.

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