For 26 hours this week, a group of about 60 Democratic congressmen and congresswomen literally sat on the floor of the House of Representatives to demand a vote on gun safety reform. For the first time in recent memory, it was Democrats who impeded that chamber from doing business, an occupation of the lower chamber by the opposition party, and the result was a thrilling example of heroic politics.
The effort was lead by US Representative John Lewis, of Georgia, and his ranks eventually grew to 170 lawmakers, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. Several Democratic senators dropped in, including Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Elizabeth Warren, Chris Murphy, and Bernie Sanders. President Barack Obama tweeted his support, as did Bill and Hillary Clinton.
It was outsider tactics employed by insiders to challenge the government that they are a part of—an act of political theater that delighted Twitter and cable news media through the wee hours of the morning Thursday. The drama was heightened by the Republican outrage, which culminated in House Speaker Paul Ryan decision to turn off the cameras in the chamber in an attempt to quell the rebellion. In the end, his efforts totally backfired: Democrats responded by taking out their phones and broadcasting the whole thing on Periscope and Facebook Live. The images were grainy, as if they had been pirated, making the scene far more compelling and dramatic than anything we might have seen on C-Span.
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Last week, I wrote on this site about the evils of Republican obstruction, looking at the way the GOP grinds the Washington machine to a halt, and purposely turns the legislative process into a series of hostage scenarios and brinksmanship. Well, this week it was the Democrats who did the obstructing. Armed with the hashtag #NoBillNoBreak—as in, the House would not begin its recess until a gun control bill was brought to a vote—the Democrats tried, valiantly, to stop the chamber from functioning until they had gotten what they wanted.
Of course, this rare example of Democratic obstruction is different from the one used by the GOP. For Republicans, obstructionism is about reverse engineering their claims that government itself is the problem and Obama is a bad leader who's impossible to work with. The party's goal is to make Washington appear dysfunctional and then claim that the problem is Obama, in order to make the case that voters should throw him and his party out.
In Obama's second term, the primary objective of the GOP has been to prevent the president from achieving any sort of success that might help his legacy, his party, or his successor, so that Republicans can go home to their states and districts and tell the folks there how they stood up to the great divider-in-chief who's ruining the country. In short, the party's obstruction is an attempt to win an election, even if they government they are trying to regain control of is irreversibly damaged in the process.
In contrast, this week's Democratic sit-in was driven by ideology—by the belief that gun control laws are constitutional and necessary, and by the House minority's frustration in the GOP's failure to even consider an issue of life-and-death importance. It was a collective scream by a group of people who watched mass shooting after mass shooting— 133 in the first 164 days of 2016—and decided they could not be silent any longer.
Democrats know that new gun restrictions have no chance of passing in the Republican-controlled House—but they are asking for a chance to vote, to get their colleagues on the record as opposing measures that the vast majority of Americans support. That the Republican leadership refuses to give that to them shows that the party would like to shield its members from this outcome, while continuing to cede to the will of the National Rifle Association.
That Republicans remain beholden to the NRA, and consistently vote the way the organization dictates, is not surprising. What has been surprising, and disheartening, has been watching the Democratic Party be too scared to stand up to the GOP and its NRA backers. Liberal politicians have talked tough about gun control, but rarely have they shown real spine in this fight. Whether the NRA really has the strength to push Democrats out of office is an open question—but enough members of the party have feared this possibility to prevent a unified effort to reject the GOP's intractable position on gun control.
That seemed to shift with this week's sit-in—which lawmakers claim will resume when Congress returns July 5. Here, there was finally evidence of a Democratic backbone when it comes to guns—of a true unwillingness to cower in the face of the NRA, and a real desire to stand up and force the GOP to fight.
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