For seventeen hours, a gaggle of Democrats, led by civil rights icon and Representative John Lewis (D-Ga.), held a sit-in on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, disrupting legislative business ostensibly to force Republicans to allow a vote on a measure which would bar Americans on the terror watchlist from purchasing firearms. “We will no longer be denied a right to vote,” boomed one Democratic representative from the floor of the House. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi echoed this sentiment to reporters at the Capitol. “[The sit-in]’s not going to go away until we get reasonable legislation,” she remarked.
But House Democrats already got their vote, and it failed. Their sit-in is a cynical publicity stunt, which the Democratic Party has leveraged into a fundraising opportunity and a way to elevate the false, hyper-partisan narrative that Republicans care little for the victims of gun violence and are circumventing the democratic process to please pro-gun special interests.
The U.S. House of Representatives is a massive legislative body. With 435 voting members, certain rules are necessary to ensure that each piece of legislation which the House takes up receives due consideration. Like the Senate, the House splits the initial consideration of legislation into committees, to which bills are typically assigned on the basis of their content. A bill proposing new regulations on genetically-modified crops, for example, might end up in the House Agriculture Committee or the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.
Once in a committee, each of which is made up of several members of the House, the bill is debated and comes to a vote before the committee. Committee members may offer amendments to bills in what is referred to as the “mark-up” session, which comes prior to a final vote on the measure. It is at this point in the legislative process that most of the work on bills is done.
It is also at this point that Congresswoman Nita Lowey (D-NY.) offered an amendment to a Homeland Security measure in the House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday morning, only hours before the Democrats’ sit-in began. The amendment, entitled a “Provision to Prevent Terrorists From Buying Firearms,” mirrored a measure offered by Democrats in the U.S. Senate, which was rejected on Monday. According to a press release on Ms. Lowey’s website, the House amendment would have “giv[en] the attorney general the authority to block the sale of firearms to known or suspected terrorists … if the attorney general has a reasonable belief that the firearm would be used in connection with terrorism.”
At the bottom of the press release came the shocking revelation:
“The amendment was voted down by the majority.”
That sounds awfully like a “vote” to me.
But let’s say for a moment that Ms. Lowey’s amendment had never been offered and that it had not been rejected by a bipartisan group of committee members. Let’s also assume that every committee is corrupt and evil, and that Republican leadership has no desire to allow an amendment on guns to survive the committee process and come before the full House for a vote.
Even in this extreme example, the Democrats still would have the power to force a vote. With a quorum of 218 House members—a simple majority—legislators may force a bill to the floor for consideration by the entire body with what is called a discharge petition. Though these resolutions are quite rare, notable successes include the Firearm Owners Protection Act of 1985, another gun bill which faced significant partisan opposition but was forced to the floor anyway and ultimately passed. And if the legislative changes which the Democrats are seeking are indeed “bipartisan solutions,” as sit-in leader John Lewis described them, a discharge petition would likely succeed.
But rather than working through the legislative process and doing the hard work of building bipartisan compromise, the Democrats decided to twist their setback into a publicity stunt. Obstructing other House business, including a measure to fund U.S. efforts to combat the Zika virus in South America, Democratic legislators whined, crowed, and chanted their way onto television and social media across the country. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), the financial arm of the Democratic congressional caucus, wasted no time in turning the debacle into a fundraising opportunity, praising House Democrats for “fighting to prevent gun violence” while “Republicans refuse to lift a finger.”
The media piled into the fray as well. Article after article praised the Democrats’ effort, even drawing comparisons to the civil rights movement of the 1960s. The editorial board of the Atlantic called the breach of decorum a “bold” effort signaling the further use of “confrontational tactics to make [Democrats’] voices heard,” while the New York Times gushed over the “dramatic” tactic which “created momentum that would ultimately lead to legislation.”
In a time when honesty and accountability in government is so lacking, the Democrats’ deception on gun legislation is par for the course. Rather than aggressively seeking bipartisan compromise, these legislators have instead decided to squeeze as much political mileage as possible from last week’s horrific mass shooting. Thanks to this publicity stunt, sensible compromise on gun safety will be even harder to obtain, as politicians on both sides dig in to prepare their own P.R. salvos and to justify their continued failure to govern.
No wonder people are frustrated with Washington.