Congressional watch: Pride and prejudice

Posted: July 22nd, 2016 | Columns, Featured | No Comments

By Andy Cohen | Congressional Watch

June 22 turned out to be quite a historic day. It was the day that House Democrats decided to stop talking about gun violence and do something about gun violence. “Thoughts and prayers are not enough,” they’ve repeatedly insisted after each massacre. “Thoughts and prayers” won’t do anything to prevent the next massacre from happening. And yet “thoughts and prayers” are all that have been offered up by this Congress — both the House and the Senate — after Aurora, Newtown, Charleston, San Bernardino, and now Orlando.

A week prior, Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut — where 20 first-grade students and six teachers/administrators were gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary — took to the Senate floor for a 15-hour filibuster to demand action on gun violence. It led Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) to schedule a vote on four different gun violence bills, two sponsored by Republicans and two by Democrats. All four went down to defeat, but at least there was a vote and everyone was on record as to where they stand.

congressional_watchNow it was the House Democrats’ turn to do something — anything — to push for a vote on “no fly no buy” legislation — a bill that states that someone on the terror watch list cannot legally purchase a gun — and an expanded mandatory background check bill, which ensures all who wish to legally purchase a firearm must go through a background check, no exceptions.

Speaker Paul Ryan and House Republicans are, shall we say, somewhat less than enthusiastic about such legislation.

Led by civil rights icon John Lewis (D-GA), House Dems decided to stage a good old fashioned sit-in to try and force their Republican colleagues to hold a vote on gun legislation. This would be the House of Representatives’ version of a filibuster, since no such mechanism exists in the lower chamber.

It is an issue that has occupied a special place in the conscience of Scott Peters (D-52).

As reported here in February’s edition, Peters began a ritual of taking to the floor of the House each week to read just some of the names of those who had been killed by gun violence since the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre on December 14, 2012. “Thoughts and prayers are not enough,” he said from the floor of Congress. “Moments of silence are not enough. Maybe, Mr. Speaker, instead of a moment of silence, the American people can get a moment of action; a moment of action that might keep their community from being next.”

As the Democratic protests began, Speaker Ryan, having no intention of bringing any gun measure to the floor, decided to shut his colleagues from across the aisle down and adjourned the session of Congress.

It was a strategic decision: The majority party, and thus the House Speaker, controls the CSPAN cameras, which are the only cameras of any kind allowed on the chamber floor, and those cameras are only allowed to operate while the House is in session. By terminating the session, Ryan cut the cameras and thus the only way for Democrats to draw attention to their cause.

Or so he thought.

House rules do not allow any cameras or recording devices on the House floor, but Scott Peters decided that it was a rule that needed to be broken in this instance, and began live-tweeting the sit-in, complete with photos and short videos. His staff then strongly suggested he download the Periscope app, allowing him to stream the sit-in its entirety. Word spread, and eventually CSPAN began televising Peters’ feed live.

“If they will turn the cameras on, we will turn our cameras off,” Peters said in one of the first speeches from the House floor during the sit-in. “When they turned the cameras off, we thought that was wrong that they would not let the American people know what was going on here. Turns out there’s an app for that.”

The sit-in, Peters said, was about two things: Making sure people who buy guns over the internet or at gun shows are subject to the same background check that purchasers at stores such as Wal-Mart are subject to; and to make sure suspected terrorists are not legally allowed to buy guns.

“I want to tell my Republican friends to not harden your hearts,” said Juan Vargas (D-51). Vargas then began to describe the events of July 18, 1984, in San Ysidro, in what was then the worst massacre in U.S. history, where 21 people were gunned down and 19 others injured in a McDonald’s restaurant by a mentally disturbed James Huberty.

“These weapons have no place in society,” Vargas said. “They’re built for one thing: To kill human beings quickly by people who are not trained to use them.” He was referring to the uzi used in that attack and the type of assault rifle used in Newtown and most recently in Orlando.

Susan Davis (D-53) told the story of Willie James Jones, the valedictorian of his 1994 graduating class at Lincoln High School who was gunned down in a drive-by shooting while at his graduation party.

“How anybody could need a weapon of mass destruction is beyond me,” Davis said in her speech. “But some of my Republican friends tell me it’s very complicated, we shouldn’t try to simplify this issue.”

The sit-in ended after 25 hours and zero votes taken on gun issues. But ironically Paul Ryan’s determination to shut the Democrats’ protest down may have backfired, as the social media broadcasts probably drew more attention than it ordinarily may have. It remains to be seen what effect the protest will have in the long term.

Darrell Issa (R-49), who is facing his biggest reelection challenge yet, saw a bill he sponsored become law last month. The Freedom of Information (FOIA) Improvement Act will embed in federal law the notion that a “presumption of openness” is the rule, making business conducted by government agencies available for all to see and making it more difficult for government officials to deny the release of information requested under FOIA.

The legislation also creates an online portal to submit FOIA requests, creating a more streamlined and accessible process. The bill was pushed by major media organizations across the country.

Duncan Hunter (R-50) is facing even more scrutiny over his use of campaign funds. Finance records contained multiple charges at Ki’s restaurant in Cardiff by the Sea — 21 transactions in all. Ki’s restaurant provides catered school lunch delivery to Christian Unified Schools, and Hunter’s children are enrolled in an affiliated school in El Cajon. All charges occurred during the school year.

Hunter opposes increased spending on public school lunches, and supports legislation that would loosen nutrition standards for public school lunches.

—Andy Cohen is a local freelance writer. Reach him at

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