Occupy Congress!

As I write this, a protest is occurring on the floor of the House of Representatives. Democrats, led by John Lewis, Jim Clyburn, Nancy Pelosi (and many others), are staging a "sit-in" to protest Republicans' refusal to even hold a vote on any gun control legislation. Their battle cry is "No bill, no break" -- a veiled threat to keep the protest going right into the next one of those too-frequent vacation weeks Congress regularly awards itself. Whether the protest is ultimately successful or not, it shows a renewed vigor in the Democratic Party to push back against the do-nothing party in the majority. This could bode well for their chances to retake control of both chambers of Congress this fall, in fact.

This protest comes the week after the ninth-longest filibuster in Senate history, launched by Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut, on exactly the same subject. Murphy forced the Senate Republicans to allow votes, and although no bill has yet passed, compromise legislation is still a possibility. This shows that on both sides of the Capitol, Democrats are willing to use extraordinary measures to spotlight the refusal of Congress to even attempt to keep guns out of the hands of suspected terrorists. It could even be called the "Occupy Congress" movement.

The tide may be turning on the politics of gun control, but it's really too early to know this for sure. Gun control is still a sticky subject for Democrats, because in recent decades it has been a big loser for them at the polls. When Democrats passed the last round of significant gun control legislation in the 1990s, they promptly lost control of both the House and Senate (to be fair, there were other reasons for the so-called "Republican Revolution" as well). This gave rise among Democratic politicians (those old enough to remember this era) to a certain amount of "once bitten, twice shy" feelings. If gun control is unpopular with the voters, they figured, then why go out on a big political limb for it?

Of course, that was several dozen massacres ago. The San Bernardino and Orlando shootings seem to have changed attitudes, both among Democratic politicians and among the public at large. Hillary Clinton, to her credit, got out in front of the issue early on in her campaign and has shown some real strength in challenging the National Rifle Association's sway over the legislative process. And now congressional Democrats also seem eager to tackle the issue.

It was always a glaring loophole -- Congress, immediately after 9/11, essentially rewrote large chunks of the Bill of Rights, in the sacred name of "national security." But they left a few things untouched, and the most obvious one was the Second Amendment. Terrorists wouldn't be allowed to fly on airplanes, but allowing them to buy high-powered guns was still perfectly OK. This loophole has existed now for 15 years, but this is really the first time it has become a political hot topic. That's one measure of the stranglehold the N.R.A. has had over the debate, in fact -- few politicians have even talked about this loophole until very recently.

Democrats seem to have learned one big lesson about gun control proposals, and that is to be very selective about which laws to propose. As Pelosi stated in her press conference today: "85 percent to 90 percent of the American people support the background checks and the 'No Fly, No Buy' legislation." That is a pretty good political strategy -- focus first on the issues that an overwhelming majority of the public agrees with. Shine a spotlight on how reasonable the proposals are, which will in turn also draw attention to how Republicans won't even take steps most of their own constituents agree should be taken.

To this end, Democrats have whittled their wish list down to just two specific issues: ending the "gun show loophole" and their new "No Fly, No Buy" attempt to deny weapons to suspected terrorists. If neither one of these passes both houses of Congress (which seems the likeliest outcome), then Democrats are signaling loud and clear that they are going to make it an enormous issue in the upcoming campaign season.

Which is why putting on a bit of political theater right now is so impressive. It's kind of hard to ignore the minority party when they have shut down both houses of Congress within the past week. The House group swears they're not going anywhere -- they're going to keep up this sit-in until they are allowed a vote on the two proposals. Pelosi pledged today: "all day we'll be there, as long as it takes, every day." The longer it goes on, the more attention it will get from both the media and the public. Since the two bills aren't likely to pass (in the current Congress, at any rate), the entire exercise is a political one anyway -- Democrats are planning to use this on the campaign trail, and the more attention they get now, the easier that case will be to make.

Some might see this as setting a bad precedent for politics in general -- refusing to let the House conduct business could generate some blowback both now and in the future. But in the near-term this isn't all that likely, if the Democrats are right about the "9 out of 10 people support this" statistic. If the public truly does want these commonsense laws passed, then Democrats are likely to gain support from most of the public for their protest. In the long term, Democrats risk the same strategy being used against them (at some future date when the House is back under their control). But if that were to happen, Republicans would also have to choose their issue carefully. If they launched a protest of their own without the support of a wide majority of the public, it would likely fizzle on them or generate public backlash. The Tea Party's "let's just shut down the government" tactic didn't exactly work wonders for the party, to put it another way.

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan is now in a bind. It's completely up to him what legislation gets floor votes, and his refusal to allow any gun control measures to even be voted on is going to get more and more uncomfortable if the sit-in continues (and garners significant public support). He won't want to look like he's caving in to Democratic demands, but not even allowing a vote is going to look pretty intransigent to the public (who currently has nothing but disgust for the way Congress refuses to get anything done). Ryan was supposed to be leading the news stories today (by releasing his vague, specific-free "replacement plan for Obamacare"), but his grand achievement now looks like it's going to get buried under the sit-in news. That's got to be annoying to Ryan, to put it mildly (especially after most everybody has ignored all his other grandiose white papers for the past few weeks).

Democrats are not likely to see any of their proposals pass this Congress and make it to President Obama's desk. They knew this all along. Instead, they are strongly making the case to the voters to elect more Democrats so that such commonsense laws can get passed on a regular basis, instead of the continuing "Party of No" obstructionism from the Republicans. In a normal election year, this case would be made on an individual basis by Democratic candidates for the House and Senate. But such dilution means not speaking with one unified voice, to a national audience. That is precisely what the whole "Occupy Congress" movement is now doing. By standing up and saying "We've had enough!" in such a clear fashion, Democrats can much more easily make that case to the voters from now until November. And the longer the sit-in goes on, the easier that case will be to make. Political theater should always be judged on two qualities -- is it attention-grabbing, and is it effective? Some manage the first without achieving the latter. But occupying Congress may wind up being a winner on both yardsticks.

 

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