This past summer, House Democrats spent 25 hours staging a sit-in on the floor of their chamber after Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) refused to allow a gun control vote they wanted. While C-SPAN originally aired footage of the protest, House Republicans turned off the cameras, so Democratic representatives began livestreaming the event with their cellphones. C-SPAN picked up those feeds, and the sit-in was back on air.
In response to this kerfuffle, Ryan has introduced a package of House rules for a vote early next month. If Ryan’s new rules are approved, the sergeant-at-arms will be able to fine representatives $2,500 for shooting video or even simply taking a picture in the House chamber. (Filming and photography are already prohibited, but the $2,500 fine would give that ban some real teeth that it presently lacks.)
Ryan’s plan quickly raised constitutional red flags, as Politico reports:
“The Constitution gives the House the authority to discipline members; I have never heard of anything where an officer of the House was given that authority,” said Mike Stern, a former lawyer for the nonpartisan House counsel’s office and the Senate Homeland Security Committee’s GOP staff.
Stern, who called the proposed rule a “plausible Constitutional issue to raise,” said Democrats could take the matter to court. “Their strongest argument would be: The House doesn’t have the authority to give these officers the power to punish us; only the power of the House can do that, and [Republicans] have short-circuited our rights by the way they’ve done it.’”
But whether this constitutional challenge succeeds — and whether you think the Democrats’ sit-in was a petty, anti-liberty obstruction, a brave stand for democracy, or something in between — Ryan’s plan is a terrible idea.
This isn’t difficult to realize. Think about it: Yes, right now the Republican Party controls the House, Senate, presidency, and nomination power for at least one SCOTUS seat (not to mention lots of statehouse majorities and gubernatorial seats). The GOP is riding high and ready to shut down any possible Democratic irritants for the next four to eight years.
I get that impulse, but it is nonsensical to think there will never be another Democratic majority in the House. Even if all the demographic predictors that favor Democrats long-term prove unreliable, there will still be another Democratic majority in the House.
And you know what will happen then? There will be some bill Republicans strongly support and the Democratic speaker won’t bring it to a vote. The House Republicans will gather in protest and the Democrats will turn off the C-SPAN cameras. The Republicans will start livestreaming and — oh wait, the sergeant-at-arms will be able to hand out $2,500 fines until they back down.
Now, sit-ins specifically may be more Democrats’ style, but the point still stands: This sort of rule will be used against its authors sooner or later, and it will squash dissent from duly elected representatives. It is shortsighted and, yes, stupid to implement a rule so ripe for abuse.
If anything, the photography prohibition already in place ought to be relaxed. Sure, excessive filming could become disruptive, but a blanket ban on this valuable tool of transparency hardly seems wise in an ever more digital age.