As the first of the year approaches the new Congress is ready to get down to business in Washington. It’s a case of “meet the new boss — same as the old boss” when it comes to GOP leadership. Mitch McConnell is still running the show in the Senate, and Paul Ryan is in charge of the House.
A few months ago Ryan and his pro-gun colleagues in the House were embarrassed when Democrats staged a sit-in to protest Republican inaction on gun laws and now the speaker and his supporters are ready to do something about it. No, they’re not going to allow votes on things like background checks. They’re going to stifle House members’ right to protest.
Last June Democrats were enraged by Republican refusal to allow a vote on expanded background checks and a provision to prohibit anyone whose name appears on the anti-terrorism “no fly” list from buying a gun. Since there are no filibusters in the House the minority Democrats couldn’t force the GOP hand by blocking other legislation. So they did the only thing they could do — they took over the chamber for some 25 hours. House GOP leadership is determined to not let anything like that happen again.
Bloomberg Politics reports that the rules package proposed by Ryan and Republican leaders for the new Congress includes sanctions for members who do what leaders consider “grandstanding.” In other words they want to silence opposition voices by fining members who participate in things such as the gun control sit-in.
It’s not just the protests that have the GOP upset. It’s the fact that House members chose to let the country see what was going on by using their phones to take photos and stream video to social media. Taking over the House chamber for a day is one thing. But actually letting your constituents and other supporters see what is going on? Outrageous!
The new rules include a $500 fine for members who make their own audio or video recordings of House proceedings. That amount would increase to $2,500 for each subsequent violation. So much for “transparency.” The House Sergeant At Arms would have the power to garnish the paychecks of members who receive the fines. Members found in violation of the rule could also find themselves referred to the Ethics Committee for possible sanctions.
During the Reagan era, Republicans regularly took to the well of the House to speak during “special orders.” That is a time where, after the day’s business has concluded, a House member can stand at the front of the chamber and talk about any topic he or she likes. In the 1980s the GOP often used the time to attack Democrats who were opposed to Reagan’s policies.
It appeared to the C-SPAN audience, who only saw the person speaking, that no Democrats were willing to challenge what the Republicans were saying during those speeches. That’s when Speaker Tip O’Neill ordered the cameras to pan the chamber, showing that Republicans were speaking to a mostly empty room. But O’Neill never attempted to stop Republicans from making the speeches or punish them for doing so. He merely showed the country that they were largely talking to themselves.
Ryan’s proposed rules threaten members with the loss of the right to protest. If they start by allowing the Sergeant At Arms to deduct fines from members’ paychecks, how long will it be before GOP leadership decides it would be a good idea to start arresting protesting members? Ryan’s rules would be dangerous enough at any time. But they’re particularly dangerous in the age of Trump.
We have already seen moves to crack down on public dissent during the inauguration. Now Republicans are trying to silence critics within the halls of Congress. Many people were afraid that when Donald Trump won the presidency the real loser would be democracy. Most of us didn’t think it would happen this fast.