Sit-in On the House Floor

by John Lawrence

The floor of the House of Representatives is a long way from a North Carolina lunch counter or an Alabama bus depot, but there was John Lewis, a veteran of the Civil Rights movement of a half century ago, sitting down in the well of the chamber to demand action on gun violence.

Lewis was dramatically joined on Wednesday by a score of Democrats frustrated by the refusal of House Speaker Paul Ryan to allow consideration of any legislation in response to the Orlando massacre, the most recent example of automatic weapon mass murder in the United States. Over in the Senate, things were not much better this week, with four measures to keep weapons out of the hands of would-be terrorists going down in flames after a 15 hour filibuster aimed at pressuring the Senate to take up the legislation.

Even Donald Trump and the National Rifle Association are aware of the vulnerability of opposing any measure addressing the easy access to battlefield weapons, although one should take their expressions of concern with more than a grain of salt. When push comes to shove, it would take a miracle for the NRA to embrace any legislation that has a meaningful impact on the availability of weapons to deranged people.

This intractability is unlikely to increase public respect for the beleaguered Congress, which is fast returning to its status as the “sapless branch” of government decried by Sen. Joseph Clark in the 1964. Except that it appears to be filled with saps who cannot even figure out how to keep a military weapon out of the hands of people who are barred from flying on airplanes. Public support for tightened rules on gun purchases ranges into the 60% and 70% margin; the inability, or unwillingness in the case of the House Republicans, to even countenance a debate on the subject seems likely to push congressional disapproval even lower than the nadir at which it currently resides. That is not a major problem for the Freedom Caucus nihilists who welcome any evidence that the federal government is unworthy of public respect (even if they generate it), but for those who are looking for leadership, it is a decidedly depressing situation.

As inappropriate as it may seem, one must consider the political implications of the stand-off (or the sit-down) on the House floor. The issue, it seems to me, is not simply the urgency for responsible gun legislation itself, but rather what the intransigence of Paul Ryan and the GOP Conference says about who should be controlling Congress. Much of the political reform of the last half century focused on assuring the ability to have a full and open debate on contentious issues in committee and on the floor. The Freedom Caucus’ major complaint with former Speaker Boehner was his unwillingness to return to “regular order” and allow such full debate. But when the GOP leadership refuses to allow any discussion of gun violence and there is silence from the Freedom Caucus “reformers,” one must question the sincerity of their demands.

Circling the wagons to defend the NRA presents a distinct target for the Fall campaign. It allows candidates to ask voters whether they want a full debate or simply continued inaction and division from the Republicans which has produced a failed budget process, no immigration debate (let alone a bill), no responsible modifications to the Affordable Care Act (as would certainly have been considered and adopted by any reasonably operational House), and now, inaction on gun violence in the wake of mass slaughter.

If Democrats can make the election less a referendum on a litany of individual issues and more about who can provide responsible management of Congress and address urgent issues – budget, immigration, health, climate change, gun violence – the public might be willing to look past the controversies swirling around the policy questions and focus on the key issue: can anybody make this place work?

The 111th Congress, the last in which Democrats held a majority, has been called the most productive in the last three-quarters of a century. The last three Congresses, run by Republicans, have arguably been the least productive. As justified as today’s sit-in has been, the sad truth is that while it hasn’t made this Congress any more productive, it hasn’t made it any less productive either.