WASHINGTON — It was a picture-perfect moment. As the Senate convened for the start of the 116th Congress, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, fellow progressives and potential rivals for the presidency, shared a brief hug on the Senate floor just minutes after they were both sworn in for their new terms.
Then there was Mitt Romney, the former Republican presidential nominee, striding across the floor as a proud new member from Utah. Smiling new and old senators lined up alphabetically to take the oath of office from Vice President Mike Pence as their colleagues applauded on the floor in the midst of a government shutdown. It was a lot to take in.
But this being the stodgy Senate, there were no photographers on hand to capture the scene, since they are banned from the chamber. While accredited photographers were granted special access to the House gallery to take colorful shots of Nancy Pelosi returning as speaker, youngsters roaming the floor and the diverse freshman class settling in, the Senate remained a shutter-free zone, as it has been for virtually its entire history.
What a loss, thought Senator Roy Blunt, Republican of Missouri, as he surveyed the festivities.
“I was thinking none of this becomes part of the pictorial history of the country,” Mr. Blunt said.
He was not just an idle member of the Senate lamenting a missed opportunity. As chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, he could actually do something about the situation, and Mr. Blunt said he was open to a rules change that would allow photography in the Senate for special occasions, such as the opening of a new Congress.
“I’m not opposed to it,” said Mr. Blunt, who added that he thought it was a shame that there wasn’t something as basic as a group shot of senators being sworn in together.
He’s not the only one.
“The family-friendly exuberance that we all saw on the House floor last week is good enough reason to allow photos on special occasions in the Senate, too,” said Senator Patrick J. Leahy, the Vermont Democrat and an avid photographer, who is the senior member of the Senate.
In a world where nearly everyone carries a camera everywhere, it might be shocking to some that there is even a question of allowing photography in the Senate. But in an institution that clings to its dusty traditions like a koala bear to a eucalyptus tree, even talk of allowing in cameras is potentially contentious.
Senate rules are notoriously difficult to change. It took months for Senator Tammy Duckworth, Democrat of Illinois, to win permission to bring her newborn on the floor. (The change was limited to those under age 1.)
Senator Roy Blunt, the chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, said he was open to a rules change that would allow photography in the Senate for special occasions, such as the opening of a new Congress.CreditErin Schaff for The New York Times
Senate sessions are televised, of course, and both the House and the Senate are paragons of transparency compared to the closed-off Supreme Court. But the cameras that provide the feed to C-Span are operated by government employees. The perspective is often purposefully limited, not showing the full range of interesting interactions in the chamber. The hug between Mr. Sanders, the Vermont independent, and Ms. Warren, the Massachusetts Democrat, was obscured on television. And no one would dispute that photographs can convey a moment much differently than a video feed.
But the Senate has for years stubbornly resisted entreaties from news photographers to allow them access for special events, let alone regular sessions, seeing it as potentially disruptive and perhaps even politically risky. Out of a longstanding worry that members will be caught inebriated, sleeping or in some other embarrassing posture, the Senate still bans photographers from even pointing their cameras in the direction of the Senate door, for fear of someone inside being caught unawares.
Life magazine in June 1938 published what it called the first picture ever taken on the floor of the Senate while in session, according to the Senate Historical Office. Then, in the 1950s, the Senate adopted a rule banning photography to curb the snapping of surreptitious photos. In the 1960s, the rule was set aside a few times to allow the National Geographic Society to photograph the Senate in session for an illustrated book it was producing on Congress. But such instances were few and far between, and many memorable moments, including the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton, proceeded with no photography allowed.
The Senate was also slow to embrace the idea of televising its proceedings. With President Richard M. Nixon potentially facing an impeachment trial in 1974, Senate leaders prepared for the prospect of airing the event. After Nixon resigned, the Senate instead agreed to allow rare television and photographic coverage of Nelson A. Rockefeller’s swearing-in as vice president under Gerald R. Ford that December.
After the House agreed to televised sessions in 1979, the Senate came under new pressure to follow suit. But some veteran members balked, saying they feared that the cameras would motivate some colleagues to become long-winded and play to the television audience — as if that could ever happen!
But by the mid-1980s, alarm that the august but untelevised Senate was beginning to play second fiddle in the public’s mind to the highly visible House was enough to motivate the Senate’s two leaders, Bob Dole, Republican of Kansas, and Robert C. Byrd, Democrat of West Virginia, to agree to a trial C-Span run that was quickly made permanent.
The House is once again ahead of the Senate. House officials now allow photographers and independent television cameras in for select events, such as the opening of a new Congress, the State of the Union address and speeches by foreign dignitaries to joint meetings of Congress. (The House is also more friendly overall to electronic devices for both lawmakers and the news media.)
The images from the first day of the House, chockablock with babies, happy lawmakers and even a youngster smacking himself with a gavel, presented the institution in a positive and vibrant light. A comparison of the coverage of the two chambers could help spur senators to act.
Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, the top Democrat on the Rules Committee, whose father was a longtime newspaperman, said she would be willing to pursue a possible rules change with her Republican counterpart.
“Our democracy is stronger when journalists and the public have access to their government, and I will continue to work with Senator Blunt to make the Senate as accessible as possible to the press, including photographers,” she said.
In light of an explosion in public interest surrounding the Trump administration and the shift in power in the House, congressional officials are already trying to find a way to balance a large press contingent with security and public access. Allowing some photography in the Senate on special occasions seems like a modest step forward. In standing by an outdated ban on photography, senators aren’t just shortchanging history, they are shortchanging themselves.