Reacting to Larson ‘sit-in,’ House imposes fines for protests

John Lewis, center, and John Larson, rear, organized a sit-in. At left, Elizabeth Esty.

Office of Elizabeth Esty

John Lewis, center, and John Larson, rear, organized a sit-in last summer. Behind Lewis at left is Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-5th District.

Washington – Republican members of the U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday beat back Democratic attempts to quash new rules for the chamber that include punishment for lawmakers who break “decorum” by using cell phones to record protests on the chamber floor.

The sanctions in the new rules, adopted on a 234-193 vote, were in response to a “sit-in” last summer on the House floor organized by Reps. John Larson, D-1st District, and John Lewis of Georgia to protest the refusal of House GOP leaders to allow votes on gun control bills.

In an angry speech on the House floor Tuesday, Larson called the move to punish lawmakers “unprecedented, unconstitutional and unnecessary.”

The new rules would impose fines on lawmakers who use “an electronic device for still photography, audio or visual recording, or broadcasting” on the House floor.

Members could face a $500 fine through deductions from their paychecks for a first offense. A $2,500 fine would be leveled for the next such offense and each subsequent violation.

“Shame on the House of Representatives for imposing these kinds of restrictions on its members,” Larson said.  He also said, ‘If you tamper with (a lawmaker’s) salary, that can only be done through the law.”

“It’s in the Constitution,” he said.

In last summer’s Democratic sit-in, which was supported by all of Connecticut’s House members, lawmakers captured national attention by live-streaming the protest on social media, using their mobile phones because the C-SPAN cameras and microphones in the chamber had been turned off.

Last week, Larson said Democrats would defy the new rules and continue their protests.

GOP leaders amended the rules to allow lawmakers to appeal their fines. But that did not assuage some Democrats, who stood up before the vote,  waiving copies of the U.S. Constitution and their cell phones.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, also made an impassioned floor speech against the rules.

“Our constituents elected us to speak our minds on the floor of the House,” she said.

Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., said the rules are aimed at telling minority Democrats, “Keep your place over there, stay where you belong.”

Republicans, however, defended the new fines, which will be administered by the House sergeant-at-arms.

Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, said there was precedent: A $200 fee is assessed members who turn in financial disclosure forms late, he said.

“We have not created new sanctions; we created ways for the sanctions to be effective, “ said Rep. Bradley Byrne, R-Ala., “Without effective sanctions we can’t have free speech on this floor. Every member in this House should be concerned about maintaining the decorum of the House.”