Clearly livid with Democrats for wresting control of the U.S. House floor with a sit-in over gun laws, Speaker Paul Ryan found himself fuming helplessly behind a bank of microphones Thursday morning.
“This is the people’s House, the oldest democracy in the world,” he snapped, “and they’re descending it into chaos.”
For more than 25 hours starting Wednesday morning, Democrats flouted the normal procedures of the Republican-led House with an impromptu protest. It was a sight to behold that offered more than a few lessons for lawmakers about transparency.
Led by civil rights legend Rep. John Lewis, they would not be moved from the carpeted House floor.
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They chanted in unison when Ryan called for order. They made impassioned speeches when other Republicans, often angrily, were trying to do business as usual.
Their goal was simple: To force the chamber’s Republican majority to allow a vote on a bill that would prevent anyone on a “no fly” list of suspected terrorists from buying a gun. It was a perfectly reasonable request. After all, voting on legislation is their job.
But instead of relenting, House Republicans stupidly dug in their heels. Ryan threw some inane political shade, calling the sit-in a “publicity stunt.” We are shocked – shocked! – that politicians pull publicity stunts.
Faced with rebellious Democrats, and some senators who were getting in on the fun, House Republicans invoked procedural roadblocks, including calling for a recess, to force C-SPAN to shut off its House-controlled TV cameras and microphones.
But this is 2016, not 1984. Orwellian attempts to control the free flow of information don’t work as well as they once did.
This isn’t even 2008, when Rep. Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats shut off the power when Republicans were demanding a vote on offshore drilling. Back then, the only way the news got out was from reporters who stuck around for the five-hour protest.
These days, there’s a thing called Periscope. It’s an app. Not to mention Snapchat and the great social media disrupters, Facebook and Twitter.
Knowing C-SPAN’s cameras had gone dark, Rep. Scott Peters, D-San Diego, started using his phone to stream the sit-in live on Periscope. Others opted for Facebook Live.
Soon, C-SPAN, to its credit, tapped into those livestreams. It was a first for the network, and the effect was immediate. The hashtag #nobillnobreak – the rallying cry of Democrats pushing Republicans to hold a vote before leaving for a long holiday break – was trending on social media for much of Wednesday.
By the time House Democrats ended their sit-in Thursday and left the Capitol, hours after Republicans had left town, they were greeted with cheers.
“Social media told our story,” Lewis said from the steps.
The whole affair raises questions about the public’s right to see their government at work free of censorship. For years, lawmakers have denied C-SPAN’s request to have independent cameras. Plus, it is against House rules to record video on the floor as Peters did. The same is true in the Senate and in the California Legislature.
The reason has as much to do with lawmakers’ need to control the message as it does with fear that snippets of hearing will be used in campaign commercials.
Ultimately, we question whether those are good enough reasons – especially because, without Periscope, we would’ve missed the priceless spectacle of Rep. Louie Gohmert, a Texas Republican, screaming like a maniac about “radical Islam” at Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Northridge, who’s hardly a model of decorum.
Lucky for all of us, no one, not even someone as powerful as Speaker Ryan, can truly censor the whole interweb machine.