Sunday, April 16, 2023

When Democrats Attack Democracy

When Democrats Attack Democracy


AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

The United States Constitution and all the state constitutions establish legislatures and give those legislatures the authority to set their own rules. The constitutions also give lawmakers the authority to punish members for violating those rules.

Rules make a legislature run, which is why party leaders always stack their rules committees with lawmakers sure to side with their party on any heated dispute. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, for example, was widely regarded as a master of using the rules to further her party's ends.

To see how she did it, look to January 2021, at the beginning of her last term as speaker, when Pelosi introduced a series of rules "reforms" that severely limited the rights of the minority -- Republicans -- to offer amendments to bills. "The rules all but eliminate what is called the motion to recommit," the Wall Street Journal editorial page noted at the time. "This legislative tool has existed since the first Congress, and for nearly 90 years it has allowed the minority party to offer the last amendment to legislation. The motions typically fail, but they are a way for the minority to highlight and provoke a debate on controversial questions."

Pelosi, working with a very small Democratic majority, shut down the minority's ability to focus on issues important to them. Her basic guideline was very simple: The majority rules. For this, Pelosi received lavish praise in the media as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, speaker in history.

So Pelosi showed that rules matter. But she also showed that rules did not matter when they stood in the way of something she wanted to do. In June 2016, Democrats, then in the minority in the House, wanted to force votes on gun control measures in the wake of the Orlando nightclub shooting. Majority Republicans did not. The problem was Democrats had only 188 members, while Republicans had 247. On their own, Democrats couldn't force the House to do much of anything. The majority rules.

Then a few Democrats had an idea: Let's stage an old-fashioned civil rights sit-in on the floor of the House. We'll stop proceedings cold and say the House cannot return to business until our demands are met. Republicans will have to give us what we want.

But who to lead the sit-in? There was only one choice: Democratic Rep. John Lewis, an honored veteran of sit-ins in the South during the civil rights era. Lewis' presence would give the Democratic sit-in, which would involve breaking the rules and shutting down the business of the House -- an essentially anti-democratic exercise -- a moral dimension. If John Lewis is doing it, it's got to be good! Plus, the press would love it.

Nancy Pelosi, at the time minority leader, master of House rules, gave the effort her whole-hearted approval. In fact, she said the sit-in would continue "until hell freezes over." Alas, for Democrats, that was just 26 hours. House Speaker Paul Ryan dismissed it a "publicity stunt" and Democrats did not win any of their demands.

But they were right about one thing: With John Lewis as their leader, they got good press coverage. Big media reporters and commentators did not slam them for the anti-democratic act of shutting down what they often call the "people's house." Instead, a Washington Post ticktock of the event was headlined, "How Democrats pulled off their dramatic sit-in on the House floor."

Pelosi's lesson was clear: In the House, the rules matter, until they don't. Now, Democrats are celebrating another, more serious disruption of legislative rules, this time in the Tennessee House of Representatives. On March 30, a group of three Democratic lawmakers, acting in concert with noisy protesters who filled the House galleries, used a bullhorn to shut down House operations for nearly an hour. The cause was the Democrats' desire to have the House turn its attention to gun issues in the wake of the Nashville shooting.

But the House, controlled by Republicans with a huge 75-24 majority, was on March 30 continuing a scheduled debate on school vouchers. To Democratic Reps. Justin Jones, Justin Pearson and Gloria Johnson -- three of the state House's 99 members -- that was unacceptable. The majority was not addressing "the crisis at hand," as Jones saw it. In Jones' view, along with Pearson's and Johnson's, the House should have dropped what it was doing and addressed the situation that Jones, Pearson and Johnson wanted it to address.

So Jones, who had sneaked a megaphone onto the House floor, took over the podium and began haranguing his fellow lawmakers. Playing to the crowd, he and Pearson handed the bullhorn back and forth and led the crowds in chants of "No action, no peace!" and "Enough is enough!" and "Power to the people!" Republicans retreated to a corner of the chamber to discuss how to regain control of the House. After nearly an hour, Jones, Pearson and Johnson left the floor, and the House returned to business.

It was as egregious a violation of rules as one could imagine -- a move by a tiny group to temporarily shut down the state's most important democratic institution. It clearly called out for punishment. After reviewing the incident, House Republicans expelled Jones and Pearson, and failed by one vote to expel Johnson, who had played a less active role in the takeover.

One more detail: Jones and Pearson are black men, while Johnson is a white woman. Thus, the story quickly became that Tennessee Republicans had expelled two black men while not expelling a white woman. (A majority of Republicans voted to expel Johnson, too, just not enough to reach the required two-thirds vote.) The issue immediately became a racial matter.

No surprise: Jones and Pearson became heroes of the left. Their occupation of the House "turned two lawmakers -- whom most Americans had never heard of -- into overnight heroes of the progressive movement," reported CNN. Nancy Pelosi, master of legislative rules, asked contributors to donate to the Tennessee Democratic Party "in solidarity" with Jones and Pearson. And the two expelled lawmakers hit the Sunday shows, where they faced not a single challenging question.

Was expulsion too serious a penalty for the Tennessee House majority to impose? Perhaps. Perhaps censure would have been more appropriate, although Democrats likely would have opposed that, too. But here is the thing. Legislatures run by rules. They are important. Lawmaking bodies cannot work if, when debating a matter, one or two or three lawmakers are allowed to produce a megaphone, shout colleagues down, and take over the chamber because they would rather discuss a different matter. The Republican idea is that such behavior should be sharply punished. The Democratic idea, amplified in a lot of media coverage, is that it should be celebrated. In this case, Republicans prevailed in the short term, but Democrats are now winning the longer term discussion. Which means one thing: We'll see more such incidents in the future.

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