The House sit-in: examining the political and cultural significance

On Wednesday, at 11:30 a.m., House Democrats, led by U.S. Rep. John Lewis, a pioneer in the civil rights movement, began a sit-in on the House floor demanding votes on gun-control legislation. Speaker Paul D. Ryan and his Republican colleagues called for a recess soon after, shutting down the live C-SPAN television feed that broadcasts House proceedings to the public. The representatives responded by live streaming their protest on Periscope, Facebook Live, and other social media platforms via their smartphones, and C-SPAN picked up the feed. The sit-in ended on Thursday afternoon, more than 25 hours after it began, with the democrats vowing to continue the fight.

We asked three Northeastern faculty members—William Fowler, Distinguished Professor of History, Nicholas Beauchamp, assistant professor of political science, and Dan Kennedy, associate professor in the School of Journalism—to put the protest in social and political context and to comment on the role of social media in its impact.

What is the history of sit-ins in Congress? Is this demonstration in the House the first of its kind in either chamber?

Fowler: As far as I know, there is no history of sit-ins in the House by members. The closest analogy I can think of are the gag rules imposed upon the House in the 1830s and ’40s by the pro-slavery majority of members. They refused to allow anti-slavery petitions to be delivered and discussed. John Quincy Adams, as a U.S. representative from Massachusetts, famously fought against the rules and eventually won. The part being played by the Republicans who refuse to allow a debate or vote on gun laws is reminiscent. I am being careful not to compare the pro-slavery forces of the 19th century with modern Republicans but the tactics are similar.

It was the drama of watching this play out on the floor of the House, unpredictably and sometimes chaotically, that gave the sit-in its power.
—Dan Kennedy, associate professor

You have marched behind the iconic John Lewis. What were the circumstances?

Fowler: Once again, in all of this, John Lewis, an American hero, rises. Last March, I was with a group of Northeastern students—University Scholars—who went to Selma, Alabama, for an Alternative Spring Break for the anniversary of the march over the Edmund Pettus Bridge. We had the great honor to be in that march following behind John Lewis. I greatly admire his courage and that of the other members of Congress who have taken this bold stand.

To put the sit-in in context, please explain how decisions are made in the House about which bills to bring up for a vote. John Lewis, who is leading the sit-in, has said: “Let us vote.  We came here to do our jobs.” If members demand a vote on an issue, isn’t doing so part of the Democratic process?

Beauchamp: Like last week’s Senate filibuster, where Democrats demanded votes on two gun-control measures, House Democrats held a 25-hour sit-in to similarly urge votes on gun-control measures. Unlike the Senate, though, there is no filibuster procedure in the House. Whereas in the Senate it takes a 60 percent vote to end debate, in the House a simple majority has the power to shape debate as well as legislative voting. Thus Democrats are unable to halt action in the House the way their colleagues in the Senate can and resorted to a more openly rebellious sit-in.

In practice, of course, things are bit more complex, with various rules and practices generally governing the minority’s rights to debate and amend bills. Speaker Paul Ryan was elected by Republicans partly on a platform to return to “regular order” in the House—a more open debate and amendment process. But the rules exist as they do because giving veto power to the minority means that in contested votes, the chamber can become completely gridlocked, possibly for years. The House has been slightly more functional than the Senate in recent years mainly because it lacks the filibuster.

Millions of people watched the sit-in live on Facebook, Twitter, and even C-SPAN, which means we may see more such actions in the near future.
—Nicholas Beauchamp, assistant professor

Even whether or not to hold a vote becomes a complex issue when there are strong disagreements. How many votes should the minority be allowed to demand? How many amendments? What is to be done if the minority uses these powers to block further activity in the chamber? There are many competing ideas of what the most “democratic” process is for running such a system, and few legislatures give much freedom to the minority party to demand votes. So when Ryan complained that Democrats were making “chaos” and violating House rules, he was technically correct: If such sit-in practices were to become commonplace, the House could become as dysfunctional as the Senate. In the end, Ryan forced through a necessary vote on a different bill—somewhat in violation of his own pledge of regular order, although arguably understandable given the circumstances—and put the House into recess despite the protestations of Democrats.

That said, this is clearly a singular moment on a singular issue, and there are certainly arguments to be made for allowing the minority the power to occasionally bring bills up for a vote, even if most of those vote outcomes are a foregone conclusion.

What do you think the outcome of the sit-in will be?

Beauchamp: Legislatively, while in the Senate the power of the filibuster means that Democrats would probably have gotten a vote on these bills even without the filibuster, in the House there is no such minority power. The bills failed in the Senate, and the sit-in ended without any new votes. The House is now in recess—although even if the bills had come up for votes, they would almost certainly not have passed.

But the purpose of the sit-in was only nominally about these bills, which in addition to having no chance of passing, are also fairly weak and unlikely to have had much large-scale effect on gun violence. The real effect of the sit-in, like last week’s filibuster, was to draw attention to the issue, highlight the partisan differences on gun control, and encourage public engagement. Millions of people watched the sit-in live on Facebook, Twitter, and even C-SPAN, which means we may see more such actions in the near future.

Social media is once again playing a key role in political protest, with the House Democrats’ sit-in over gun-control legislation. How might the way the participants are communicating their activism—through Periscope, Twitter, and Facebook—affect the outcome of the protest?

Kennedy: House Speaker Paul Ryan, by calling a recess, was no doubt assuming that he could deprive Democrats of the media oxygen they needed to gain attention for their cause and to build support for the sit-in. I’m sure Ryan was stunned to learn that every member of Congress can now act as his or her own television station, broadcasting live video through social-media platforms such as Periscope on Twitter and Facebook Live— something that would have been technologically difficult just a year or two ago but that is now simple.

If such tools hadn’t been available, the Democrats would have had other options. They could have stood outside the empty House chamber, or perhaps on the Capitol steps. But that would have amounted to little more than a group press conference of the sort that we see every day. It was the drama of watching this play out on the floor of the House, unpredictably and sometimes chaotically, that gave the sit-in its power. Of course, the presence of civil rights hero John Lewis was also key in elevating this to more than just another political event. As a result, the sit-in received far more media coverage than it otherwise would have.

Regarding platforms such as Periscope and Facebook Live in particular: House rules forbid cameras in the chamber, making the use of members’ phones to transmit the proceedings particularly radical. What fallout might there be from that?

Kennedy: Although the House leadership could seek retribution, I suspect that the Republicans are smart enough to know there will be no stuffing this back into the bottle. There’s something repugnant about the idea that the public can’t see what’s going on in the people’s Congress except through C-SPAN under pre-approved rules regarding access and camera angles. The folks at C-SPAN deserve a lot of credit for flouting those rules and carrying social-media video throughout the sit-in.

That said, I’m a little concerned about the precedent that may have been set by violating the rules of the House in staging a protest and bringing business to a halt, however worthy we may think the purpose was. We live in an incredibly divisive time. If such tactics become a routine element in the partisan warfare that has come to characterize Congress, then we may have taken yet one more step toward total gridlock.