The sight of Members of the House sitting in the well of the chamber to demand action on gun legislation was stirring, especially since the unprecedented demonstration was led by the iconic civil rights veteran, Rep. John Lewis of Georgia. Frustrated by the refusal of Speaker Paul Ryan to schedule votes on gun reform, Democrats employed techniques unparalleled in congressional history to halt House proceedings and focus attention on unaddressed measures including immigration reform, the annual budget, and climate change, as well as gun violence.
The options available to Democrats to seize control of the House floor are limited. The House is a majority-run institution. Unlike the Senate, individuals and even the entire minority party are nearly incapable of affecting the schedule of bills that come before the chamber. Whatever the accusations against the sit-in, or the accompanying effort to block Republicans from reaching the microphones, one would be hard-pressed to argue they slowing down the productivity of the House.
Yet a note of caution is warranted. While the sit-in was successful in focusing public attention on the inaction on gun policy, Democrats (and Congress in general) should be cautious about embracing so-called “reforms” that may appear momentarily attractive but might contribute to the dysfunction of the House over time.
Indeed, a long history of reform actions have had not only beneficial impacts but also unintended consequences, and careful consideration should be given to proposals to upend traditions that have served the House well over the decades.
One particularly poor idea emerging from the sit-in experience, for example, was proposed by Rep. Eric Swalwell, a second term Democrat from California. Intrigued by the use of smart phone cameras and the Periscope app to broadcast the sit-in after C-SPAN’s cameras were shut off, Swalwell has suggested changing the House rules to allow such live streaming of floor activities on a regular basis. “What is the harm if the members have Periscope open on the House floor?” Swalwell asked. “It’s the people’s house, and as many windows as can be opened so they can be let in – it’s a good thing.”
Actually, no, it is not. Having Members wandering around the floor with cell phone cameras, filming private discussions, meetings and off-hand comments between Members would be a supremely bad thing. It is reminiscent of another recent “transparency” proposal to require Members to wear mini-cameras to record everyone with whom they met or spoke during the day.
Not only do some “reform” ideas violate the privacy of Members and the public, but they create a false sense of accountability. Many conversations would simply be driven into private areas; the floor would become even more empty than it is already; suspicion and distrust between Members would grow at the very time greater initiative is needed to break down the partisan and personal barriers that have obstructed communication and trust.
This is not to say that transparency is bad. Unquestionably, Congress is better for the reforms of the 1970s that opened the proceedings of committees, subcommittee and conferences to the press and public. Members are more accountable to their constituents because recorded votes are more easily achieved. And surely, the public has a greater access to observe congressional deliberations since television coverage began in the late 1970s.
But it is one thing to have C-SPAN covering the official debate in committee or on the floor, and quite another to have Members wandering the floor like so many Michael Moores. Many senior leaders long opposed televising floor proceedings for fear coverage would focus on Members’ unsuitable behavior (Tip O’Neill famously warned they might be caught scratching unmentionable parts of their anatomy). Another concern was that Members would stop speaking to each other in substantive debate and instead focus on the wider television audience, turning the floor into extended messaging sessions for firing up voters and publicizing the foibles of the opposite party.
Those concerns have been borne out over time; the use of one-minute speeches at the beginning of the legislative day – often little more than partisan harangues — tripled in the five years after the beginning of TV coverage, and the use of Special Orders, which can last an hour for much the same purpose, have similarly ballooned. Other reforms that loosened the rules on offering amendments generated strategies to force votes on divisive, unpassable measures simply to score politically damaging points against vulnerable representatives. Members of the Republican minority, led by Newt Gingrich, exploited expanded access to the public via C-SPAN very successfully throughout the 1980s and early 1990s to building public recognition and support. When Speaker Jim Wright dialed back some of the liberalizations in the late 1980s to constrain partisan maneuvers, Republicans decried “autocratic” management of the House and called for a change in party control.
Swalwell is right when he notes that Congress is “an institution slow to upgrade itself,” and reformers are right to press for accountability and transparency. But legislators should consult congressional history before proceeding too quickly to embrace any change in the name of “reform.” The results do not always make Congress a more open, accountable or effective legislative body.