By Paige Scobee
At 11:15 a.m. Wednesday morning, House Democrats took to the House floor and vowed not to leave until the body voted on gun control legislation.
True to their word, they remained in the well of the chamber for more than 24 hours, including throughout two late-night/early-morning votes on measures that concerned funding of programs to combat the Zika virus as well as certain military programs. And even when leadership decided, without a vote, at 3:25 a.m. to recess early for the planned July 4 break, many of the Democrats remained firmly seated on the House floor.
The sit-in, unusual and unexpected, ended on Thursday, more than a day after it began. While others will debate whether the action was effective or appropriate, our concern is one of legislative history: Was it unprecedented?
Yes and no.
In 1995, House Democrats refused to leave the floor after the House voted to adjourn early for recess in the midst of a government shutdown. After two hours of speeches, they left and a temporary spending bill was passed the next day. In 2008, Republicans took the floor during August recess to force a vote on expansion of offshore drilling in response to $4 a gallon gas and ended up getting a vote.
However, no sit-in lasted as long or was on the scale of this week’s effort. In the end, more than 170 representatives participated in the sit-in, which lasted almost 26 hours.
House rules once permitted members to speak on the floor without limit, but after representatives wearied of hours-long speeches, they implemented time limits in 1842. While the Senate kept unlimited debate through the filibuster, the House process generally sets a defined time limit for debate, so the sit-in is a sort-of makeshift House equivalent to stall and force votes on a bill. However, the House has no specific procedural rules regarding sit-ins or how to end them.
The protestors technically did not violate any House rule by occupying the floor. As people “privileged to remain,” representatives are authorized to be on the floor at any time. The speaker of the House, however, does have the power to order their removal by the sergeant-at-arms in the event of “disorderly conduct.” The House sergeant-at-arms has been called to remove members very few times, most recently in 2003, when members made threats and walked out of a Ways and Means Committee hearing. (The police never took action despite being called.)
While House leadership decided not to forcibly remove members from the floor, security did escort a few public viewers from the gallery Wednesday night who were cheering in violation of House rules.
Social media use also made this sit-in particularly extraordinary. CSPAN was not broadcasting most of the sit-in because House rules dictate that broadcast of the floor is required only during live sessions. CSPAN and the Democrats on the floor skirted around the rule by airing live videos from representatives’ cellphones. Some representatives conducted interviews over the phone, and many tweeted and others used Instagram to distribute photos of themselves on the floor.
In contrast to the Senate, House members are typically allowed to use their cellphones to text, tweet and email from the floor. Photos and videos, however, are not allowed, as they are considered a distraction to regular order. The House sergeant-at-arms asked representatives to stop taking photos from the chamber on Wednesday, but they continued to violate this rule as their selfies traveled the internet.
While states have generally avoided the sit-in tactic, Wisconsin legislators instead staged a sit-out in 2011 to stall a vote by fleeing the state altogether.
While somewhat-unprecedented, this sit-in did play by House rules. Historically, sit-ins are unusual, but Wednesday’s was unique in its length, broad participation, and its coverage on social media. And while we don’t know when, or if, this tactic will be used again, if it is, you will know about it … on your Facebook, Instagram or Twitter feed.
Paige Scobee is an intern in NCSL’s Washington, D.C., office.