Why the House Sit-in Will Change Congress

Last night, during the House Democrats’ sit-in, a Congressional wall was broken; a façade momentarily fell. House Democrats pressed for a vote on several gun-related bills in response to the Orlando shooting. The House was technically adjourned so the official House cameras, which feed CSPAN broadcasts, were off. (Here’s how it went down.)

With no official coverage, Members on the Floor began streaming the protest via Periscope (Rep. Scott Peters later shared that he had downloaded the app that morning because “one of the millennials suggested it.”)

CSPAN followed suit and began broadcasting the Persicope (and soon, Facebook Live) feeds, as more Members joined in. What the public saw, for the first time, was an unfiltered Congress. Cell phone cameras (officially barred from both the House and Senate Floors) brought us overheard conversations, unseen angles, and (GASP) even a walk through the cloakroom.

As CSPAN continued to explain that it does not control the cameras in the legislative chambers, the Radio-Television Correspondents’ Association issued a statement noting that its members have tried for years to be able to share video or even still photos from the chambers. Either of which would most certainly result in press members losing credentials for violations of the rules.

House Democrats are not the first to go rogue on Congressional decorum rules and technology. In fact, Republicans were the original pioneers on that front. Rep. John Culberson [R, TX-7] famously became the first to live-stream a House protest via Qik (does that still exist?) and “the messaging site Twitter,” as Republicans held the Floor insisting on action to open up drilling in 2008. (He apparently stepped into a hallway to avoid completely breaking the House rules on devices and photos on the House Floor.)

ComputerWorld article from August 4, 2008 describes House Republicans’ use of social media and streaming video to share protest calling for a vote on drilling expansion.

Last night, House Democrats took no such half measures with constant live-steaming on multiple platforms. And for those of us watching, the cacaphony was amazing: overhearing side conversations, whoops, and whispers from Members; views of Members sitting on literal floor of Floor, joined by senators.

Rep. Eric Swalwell [D, CA-13] was one of several members livestreaming video from the House Floor on Wednesday night.

Around 11 PM, House GOP Leadership decided to hold a late-night (early morning?) vote on the conference report to the MilCon/VA and Zika Appropriations bill. In an ironic twist, as the House Rules Committee met around 11:30 PM, the committee’s cameras were out of order, so the committee majority streamed the proceedings through its own Facebook Live channel.

Once the Rules Committee passed a rule for the Zika bill (which itself bypassed “regular order” with expedited consideration), the House gaveled back in and, at least on CSPAN, the mood changed decidedly: from Periscope livestreams back to the official cameras with a view of the dais.

As the House gaveled back in for a vote on the CJS Approps bill and Zika funding, CSPAN displayed a splitscreen with the official video and streaming video from Members.

The difference exposed the official cameras for what they are: a distilled, sanitized version that represents a very small sliver of what is really going on. Like the PDFs that open data advocates have decried for years, official camera angles are technically public, but not exactly ideal.

Newbies on the Hill frequently remark that one of the things they find most interesting is the periphery that you just don’t see on CSPAN… what happens outside the close camera angles that disguise the empty chambers that members frequently address, the side-eye, huddles and cajoling off to the side, and the obvious inattention paid during “hearings,” (in which very little is actually heard). Last night, it was open for all to see.

If history is any precedent, Congressional use of technology is subject to a ratchet effect. Once a barrier is breached, it is rarely replaced in the same way. The first YouTube account was a significant bridge to cross; as were the first Facebook accounts. Even Blackberrys and email rapidly rose to prominence by sheer necessity in the wake of the anthrax scare post 9/11.

Last night, rules were broken. Barriers were pushed. Will Congress vote to censure almost half of its members? Probably not, thought there was quite a bit of tsk-tsk-ing from the dais.

3:50 a.m.
Before adjourning until July 5, Republican leaders reminded lawmakers about decorum on the House floor.
In particular, leaders told rank-and-file lawmakers that they are barred from using electronic devices to display audio or video recordings of House proceedings or take pictures on the House floor. — AP

And if not, what’s to stop similar efforts in the future? Last night’s protest was about gun control, but its lasting impact may have more to do with the operation of Congress itself. Will the public continue to accept a keyhole view of our representatives at work? Will Congress itself?

Worth noting, of course, is that the power of last night was not the livestream from the Floor; it was that there were people listening and watching. Whether you support or oppose the bills on which Members were calling for a vote H.R. 1076: NoFlyNoBuy and H.R. 4269: Assault Weapons Ban), the fact that you were thinking about it at all was a civic engagement win.

Marci Harris is co-founder and CEO of POPVOX, an online platform for legislative information and civic engagement. Sign up for our weekly POPVOX updates on votes and happenings in Congress.