House Democrat sit-in: well intended but in the wrong well
© Twitter

The Democratic Members who staged a sit-in Wednesday in the well of the House to protest the lack of action on gun control legislation were, no doubt, well-intentioned. But they were well off the procedural and behavioral mark in the venue they chose. Their presumed target was the Republican leadership responsible for scheduling legislation. But their actual victim was the dignity and decorum of the House Chamber which they defiled by their raucous chants, selfies, snacks and teenage-pajama-party antics.                

Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanPaul Ryan researched narcissistic personality disorder after Trump win: book Paul Ryan says it's 'really clear' Biden won election: 'It was not rigged. It was not stolen' Democrats fret over Trump-district retirements ahead of midterms MORE is to be commended on the way he handled the revolt, maintaining his composure while everyone around him (including at least one of his own party members), seemed to be losing theirs. By first reminding Members of the chair’s responsibility under House Rule I to preserve order and decorum in the proceedings of the House, and then finding that “the House currently is not in a state of order due to the presence of Members in the well,” the Speaker gave fair warning. He then asked Members “to please leave the well so that the House may proceed with business.” When the miscreants still refused to remove themselves, Ryan exercised his prerogative under the rules to gavel the House into recess subject to the call of the chair.  


The Democrats’ ploy was not unprecedented. In 2008, the then minority Republicans staged a similar floor sit-in over the Democratic majority’s refusal to schedule a vote on off-shore drilling. The GOP rebels were dealt with in similar fashion when Speaker Nancy Pelosi declared a recess that turned off the lights, cameras and action (at least to the viewing public). However, that was before the social media age in which every person can now be their own broadcast network using their personal electronic devices. The advent of YouTube, Facebook and private Twitter accounts have ramped-up the dangers of electronic democracy morphing into mobocracy as rants and chants replace contemplation and deliberation.

Those familiar with the traditions and fixtures of the House Chamber may wonder why the Speaker did not summon the Sergeant-at-Arms to restore order by brandishing the mace. For those not familiar, the mace is a 46-inch long bundle of 13 metal rods, bound in silver and capped by a silver globe and eagle. Inherited from the British House of Commons, it is a symbol of legislative authority that the first House adopted it in 1789 with the Sergeant-at-Arms as its custodian. 

The Sergeant-at-Arms, when called upon by the Speaker to preserve order, lifts the mace from the podium to the right of the Speaker and presents it in front of the unruly Member (or Members). In the past, at least, such a powerful symbol has gotten instant results. However, given the nature of this week’s protest and the number of Members involved, the Speaker likely concluded that presentation of the mace would not get the desired results and that a recess was the best way to end the public spectacle that televised chaos would project. Nevertheless, Members were aided and abetted by C-SPAN which picked-up and broadcast some of the Members’ personal still photos and live-streaming.

Prior to adjourning the Thursday House session around 3 a.m., the Speaker reminded Members of the House rule and Speaker’s policies regarding the use of electronic devices on the House floor. To quote the Speaker: “Because outside ‘coverage’ of the chamber is limited to floor proceedings and is allowed only by accredited journalists, when the chamber is on static display no audio and video recording or transmitting are allowed.” The Speaker added, “The long custom of disallowing even still photography in the chamber is based at least in part on the notion that an image having this setting as its backdrop might be taken to carry the imprimatur of the House.”

The problem now confronting the House, absent any punishment of this week’s offending shutter-bugs (which would be ill-advised), will be how to get and keep that personal audio-video genie back in its box when it is in the House Chamber. It may come down to Members checking their smart phones at the door, just as cowboys had to check their revolvers at the door before entering some saloons in the Old West.

Don Wolfensberger is a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center and Bipartisan Policy Center and former staff director of the House Rules Committee. The views expressed here are solely his own and do not represent the views of either institution.