House Democrats take their turn on gun control

Late on Wednesday morning, a group of House Democrats assembled in the well of the House to begin a “sit-in,” pledging to remain until the Republican leadership scheduled a vote on gun control measures, joining their Senate colleagues in using highly-visible tactics to draw attention to the issue. As of this writing, a small group of Democrats remains on the floor (despite the fact that the House has adjourned for its 4th of July recess), but here’s a preliminary analysis of what both sides have been up to:

1. Why did House Democrats take this approach?

In short: because they had few other options that would have generated a similar level of visibility. In general, the rules of the House provide the minority party with relatively few procedural rights that they can leverage to achieve their desired political and policy ends. As my colleague Sarah Binder has written, moreover, those rights can be expanded and contracted in line with the short-term partisan goals of the majority, putting the minority at a further disadvantage.

In this particular case, several specific features of House procedure are particularly relevant. First, Democrats could not repeat their Senate colleagues’ filibuster on the same issue, as House members do not have the same opportunities for unlimited speech-making as their peers in the upper chamber; when a member is recognized to speak on the floor, he or she is given a defined amount of time to talk. Second, because opportunities to amend bills on the floor are carefully circumscribed by the Rules Committee, Democrats would have difficulty offering their gun-related proposals as an add-on to another measure without the prior consent of the majority party. What’s more, the recent decision to limit amendments as part of the appropriations process eliminated one of the few ways for minority party members to force a vote on a provision they prioritize but their majority colleagues oppose. Third, the discharge petition—a cumbersome tool for forcing a bill onto the floor when the House leadership refuses to schedule it for consideration—requires the support of a simple majority of the House. Even if all 188 Democrats supported such a move (which is not a foregone conclusion, given the presence of moderate Democrats like the Blue Dogs within the caucus), they would be hard-pressed to find 30 additional Republicans to join them.

2. Why did Republicans respond the way they did?

Once Democrats began their sit-in, Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) had several options. On one hand, he could have chosen to wait out the Democrats, not reconvening the chamber until the members left the floor. Given that maintaining the sit-in is not nearly as physically demanding as executing a Senate filibuster—House members can sit down during this effort, and leave and return to the floor as they wish—it’s unclear how long Ryan would have had to let the sit-in continue before Democrats tired of the effort. What’s more, the final House-Senate compromise providing funding to fight the Zika epidemic sat before the chamber, waiting for action. Waiting out the Democrats would have made it difficult to pass that measure before the 4th of July recess.

A second option would have been to simply give the Democrats the vote they were demanding. Not only would this have set a dangerous precedent, creating a template for future would-be obstructors, but it would have possibly created problems for Ryan within his own party. Some moderate Republicans would have likely felt cross-pressured between constituency concerns and the prospect of a low grade on the next NRA scorecard. Conservatives, meanwhile, would have likely been frustrated that Ryan was granting obstinate Democrats something he hasn’t been entirely willing to provide members of his own party. Members of the House Freedom Caucus, for example, have met only mixed success in gaining the amendment votes they want on appropriations bills so far this year.

A third option would have been to have the Democrats forcibly removed from the chamber, but undoubtedly, the optics of physically removing Civil Rights icon Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) from the floor of the House would have been problematic. That left the approach that Ryan ultimately took late Wednesday night and early Thursday morning: reconvene the House and manage, over Democrats’ continued vocal protests, to forcibly complete the remaining business before the chamber, including adopting the aforementioned Zika measure. A few minutes of chaos was Ryan’s least-worst option.

 3. What happens now?

The House has adjourned until July 5, but Democrats could continue their efforts through the congressional break. The last time the minority party engaged in a similar endeavor—when the House Republicans took to the floor to demand action in response to high gas prices in August 2008—they continued their efforts throughout a weeks-long recess, despite the fact that the then-majority Democrats literally turned out the lights in the House chamber. Even if Democrats choose to leave the floor and join their Republican colleagues back in their districts during the recess, the issue will likely return to the top of the agenda when Congress returns for its final, pre-convention/summer recess push.