When House Democrats Turned Out the Lights on Republicans

The lawmakers staging a sit-in on Wednesday took a page from GOP members who protested inaction by then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi on the House floor eight years ago.

Then-Representative Roy Blunt in 2008, when it was Republicans who took over the House floor in protest. (Lawrence Jackson / AP)

Nancy Pelosi joined her colleagues on the House floor early Wednesday and promptly decried Republican leaders for turning off the microphones and shutting down access to the galleries during the Democrats’ sit-in protesting the lack of a vote on gun-control legislation.

“Mr. Speaker, turn on this microphone,” she demanded.

The Republican majority had gaveled the House out of session when Democrats took over the floor, turning off the CSPAN cameras and the microphones. It’s the kind of response with which Pelosi, the House minority leader, is quite familiar: When Republicans staged a similar protest eight years ago, she went a step further and shut off the lights.

It was August of 2008, in the middle of another hotly-contested election, and Republicans—then in the minority—wanted to draw attention to the refusal of the Democratic majority to bring up “all-of-the-above” energy legislation at a time when gas prices were soaring to record highs. Pelosi was speaker then, and after Democrats gaveled the House out of session to begin Congress’s annual five-week summer recess, Republicans stayed on the floor to give speeches protesting Democratic inaction. Groups of lawmakers returned day after day for the length of the break, speaking into a dark and other empty House chamber.

“The speaker of this House has shut down the people’s House,” the future House Majority Leader Eric Cantor complained then. “Kept the cameras out, turned the lights off, turned the mics off, but yet we had a House full of members insisting that we open this House back up.”

Democrats were furious at the GOP’s move then, called it a stunt. Politico reported at the time that Democratic aides called Republicans on the floor “morons” and chastised the press for covering it. Eight years later, Democrats are trying to cloak what is essentially the same attention-seeking maneuver in the weightier historical tradition of the sit-in. They’ve cast the issue at hand—gun control—as a matter of life and death, and as a front man for the protest, they turned to the civil rights legend Representative John Lewis of Georgia, who is beloved by members of both parties in Congress.

Minority parties in the House turn to these kind of protests because unlike in the Senate, they can’t simply draw attention or block floor action by staging a filibuster—which is what Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut did last week to force votes on gun legislation. The House runs almost entirely by majority rule, so the minority party must break the rules in order to disrupt the chamber.

Republicans seem to be taking the Democratic protest in stride, preferring—for the first few hours, at least—to keep quiet and wait out the sit-in. The lack of cameras may have forced Democrats to record their speeches with illicit photos and shaky Periscope feeds, but hey, at least Republicans didn’t shut off the lights.