Government at work.

Photographer: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Democrats' Gun Sit-In Failed, and Succeeded

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
Read More.
a | A

The House Democratic sit-in against gun violence was, yes, essentially a publicity stunt. It did not bring democracy to a halt, as some Republicans charged. From the standpoint of governing, it was no more than an inconvenience.

There was nothing wrong with such a protest. I felt the same way about the extended speech by Senator Rand Paul back in 2013 when he opposed the confirmation of John Brennan as director of Central Intelligence. Short-term disruptions to dramatize a point that a single member or handful of lawmakers feels is terribly important is a perfectly fine use of congressional resources, even if the Democrats this time violated House rules by streaming their protest through social media and briefly violated norms of House decorum.

Except for the video part of it, such an action wasn’t new. At least one scholar of Congress has already studied the tactic. Republicans in 2008 used it (and the Democratic leadership then was somewhat harsher in response, turning off the lights in the House). Democrats employed it in 1995. It doesn't happen often, perhaps because the rewards are minimal.

When such an action is taken, it's a reflection of the weakness of the minority party in the modern House. The majority party wasn't so powerful until the mid-20th century (though his power ebbed and flowed in the 19th century). As opposed to the situation in the Senate, where Republicans deserve the bulk of the blame for encouraging dysfunction and destroying norms, in the House there’s plenty of blame to spread around.

Southern Democrats in the 1950s and earlier used their power as individual committee chairmen to thwart civil-rights legislation that the whole House (and most of the nation) supported. Liberal Democrats who reformed the House in the 1960s and 1970s quite reasonably shifted influence to the party leadership, but they eventually went overboard and cut the minority party out of the loop entirely. And Republican majorities, which have run the House since 1995 except for 2007 through 2010, further curtailed the rights of the minority, even to offer amendments on the floor. The Democrats under Speaker Nancy Pelosi did nothing to restore minority rights. 

The apparent immediate spark for the latest protest was the Republican decision to restrict amendments on appropriations bills. Traditionally, spending bills are debated under “open” rules that allow amendments. But the restriction wasn't unprecedented, and Pelosi used similar rules during her speakership. 

The House Democrats this week had some unusual advantages that won't be available in the future. One was the novelty of streaming video, which proved appealing to cable news. Next time, this display will be old hat. The other advantage was the prominent presence of Representative John Lewis, the 76-year-old veteran of many sit-ins of the civil-rights era. Speaker Paul Ryan could not forcibly clear the floor without giving Democrats a golden opportunity to draw parallels to the heroic resistance of the past (but if Lewis makes a habit of this, he'll reduce the power of his iconic stature). 

The Democrats failed to achieve their goal: They did not secure a House vote on their proposed gun measure. Nor are they likely to do so. But that doesn’t mean the protest failed. Publicity can be useful.

That's not all. Parties have constant internal discussions and conflicts about their agenda. For those Democrats who want gun control to become a higher priority -- which matters for what a future Democratic president or congressional majority will do -- a demonstration of the power the issue has could really make a difference.

  1. Yes, as Speaker Paul Ryan noted, Democrats are using it to raise money. So what? Both parties use everything they can for fundraising. 

  2. Tip O’Neill was an excellent speaker and politician, but he bears a lot of responsibility for this. He failed to see the consequences of empowering the majority party at every turn, thereby giving the minority party few incentives for acting responsibly.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net