In a week in which the Brexit vote knocked people’s socks’ off; the Supreme Court rejected Obama’s use of executive orders to reform the immigration system; and Donald Trump disappeared to Scotland to sell his new golf course in the midst of a presidential campaign; the action on the Floor of the U.S. House of Representatives may well score as the event having the greatest impact on American political life. There are two aspects to the remarkable scene that occurred on Wednesday. One of them was the substance of the discussion and the other was the scenario which transpired. On the one hand there was the matter of controlling gun violence and on the other was how the House of Representatives functions as the historic people's chamber.
Admittedly there has been considerable exasperation among House Democrats at the failure of the majority Republicans to at least bring gun control legislation to increase checks on the purchasing and licensing of guns to a vote. Having watched events in the Senate the previous week with a filibuster followed by defeats on similar measures to increase control of guns, the Democratic minority in the House sought, at a minimum, to force the chamber to stand-up and vote on the issue. Assuming that the polls are correct, over 80% of the American people want tighter restrictions on the availability of guns to any person on the no-fly or terrorist watch list. Nevertheless, the Senate could not approve any legislation and the House never even had a bill on the Floor to consider.
So the iconic Representative John Lewis swung into action, following a pattern he had used as a young civil rights leader over 50 years ago; mobilize a sit-in. Leading his Democratic colleagues, House activity was held captive for over 24 hours in a way that was unprecedented and totally shocking to the Majority Party. Speaker Ryan—left only with the option to order the Sergeant in Arms to break-up the illegal Democratic sit-in by force—after almost 24 hours he brought up a vote to immediately recess the House for two weeks.
The action on the House floor was truly remarkable. Unlike legislatures throughout the world, in the scheme of things the U.S. Congress is a very well behaved group. Even the British House of Commons continues to be the scene for raucous debates and antics over the years. From time to time Congress has seen Members shout out at each other or even challenge one another but breaking historical institutional rules as the Democrats did this week reportedly was unprecedented.
In the 19th Century the Members of Congress were hardly as civilized or as genteel as most of them are today. While the records of the formal debates exist and as well as contemporaneous news reports, scholars have never painted anything close to a scene that the Democratic sit-in presented this week. The American people did not have access to audio or televised presentations of floor activities; no 24/7 news broadcasts; and no social media. Since there were no microphones the very nature of debate was totally different. What happened on Wednesday was that the Democrats in the House essentially announced that they would not endure being unable to bring the most salient issue of the moment to a vote as they believed the American people desired. They challenged their colleagues to return home for a recess and face their constituents’ ire or acquiescence on how the elected Members of the House handled an opportunity to change matters after the tragic terrorist violence in Orlando.