Speaker of the House Paul Ryan’s plan to crackdown on protests and livestreaming from the House floor could brush up against Constitutional protections.
The measure, which comes as part of a House rules package slated for approval in early January, would allow the sergeant-at-arms to levy $2,500 fines on lawmakers who shoot video or take photos on the chamber floor. The move follows the Democrat’s "sit-in" calling for stricter gun laws last summer, in which they stopped proceedings and used mobile devices to broadcast the protest from the House floor.
But the sergeant-at-arms has traditionally had little power to punish elected officials. Referring to Article 1 of the Constitution, which states, "each House may … punish its Members for disorderly behavior," experts say lawmakers have interpreted that to mean sanctions against a legislator must be brought by a full House floor vote.
"Do members really want to start this?" Robert Walker, former chief counsel and staff director to the Senate and House ethics panels, told Politico. "Once you start delegating punishment to an officer, it raises a question of precedent and whether it can be expanded, and I think members will want to think carefully before they do this."
The sit-in received both criticism and praise directly tied to partisan lines: Democrats hailed the move as a heroic form of leadership while Republicans decried the disruption as "grandstanding," saying that legislators should not resort to a protest tool used by disenfranchised or less powerful members of society.
"Sit-ins are righteous when they're the tool of an oppressed minority group insisting on equal rights," Conor Friedersdorf wrote on The Atlantic's live blog at the time. "But members of Congress are among the most powerful political actors in the country, and they are acting on an issue that is endlessly discussed and debated, not one that requires unusual tactics, like subverting order in the national legislature, to air all sides of the matter. When Republicans respond to not getting their way by undermining legislative norms, the press objects. It should object here."
But the sit-in did bring the issue of gun legislation to the forefront, which could fall from the docket in a GOP-controlled Congress and with Donald Trump as president. Only around 1 percent of voters believed gun control was the most important issue in the 2016 election, and many are doubtful that progress will be made in that realm during the coming year.
"Democrats haven’t been able to capitalize on a gun issue after tragedies in the past, and I don’t see why this year is any different," David Wasserman, who tracks House races for the independent Cook Political Report, previously told The Christian Science Monitor.
As for the rule change, experts warn that placing the responsibility to punish legislators on a single officer will likely create issues.
"Look, I understand the Republicans are trying not to inflame things by coming up with something to put a stop on [this protesting], but there is no way around them exercising their own authority to control breeches of decorum," Stan Brand, a former longtime House counsel for the Democrats, told Politico. "That’s the way do it – not by delegating it to some poor officer of the House."