Syndicated columnist Byron York: When Democrats attack democracy

  • Byron York

    Byron York

Posted4/14/2023 1:00 AM

By Byron York

The U.S. Constitution and all the state constitutions establish legislatures and give them the authority to set their own rules. The constitutions also give lawmakers the authority to punish members for violating those rules.


Rules make a legislature run, which is why party leaders always stack their rules committees with lawmakers sure to side with their party on any heated dispute. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was regarded as a master of using rules to further her party's ends.

To see how she did it, look to January 2021, at the beginning of her last term as speaker, when Pelosi introduced a series of rules "reforms" that severely limited the rights of the minority -- Republicans -- to offer amendments to bills. "The rules all but eliminate what is called the motion to recommit," The Wall Street Journal editorial page noted at the time. "This legislative tool has existed since the first Congress, and for nearly 90 years it has allowed the minority party to offer the last amendment to legislation. The motions typically fail, but they are a way for the minority to highlight and provoke a debate on controversial questions."

Pelosi, working with a very small Democratic majority, shut down the minority's ability to focus on issues important to them. Her basic guideline was very simple: The majority rules. So Pelosi showed that rules matter. But she also showed that rules did not matter when they stood in the way of something she wanted to do. In June 2016, Democrats, in an effort to force votes on gun control measures in the wake of the Orlando nightclub shooting, staged a sit-in, led by Rep. John Lewis. House Speaker Paul Ryan dismissed it as a "publicity stunt" and Democrats did not win any of their demands.

Pelosi's lesson was clear: In the House, the rules matter, until they don't. Now, Democrats are celebrating another, more serious disruption of legislative rules, this time in the Tennessee House of Representatives. On March 30, a group of three Democratic lawmakers, acting in concert with noisy protesters, used a bullhorn to shut down House operations for nearly an hour. To Democratic Reps. Justin Jones, Justin Pearson and Gloria Johnson -- three of the state House's 99 members -- that was unacceptable. So Jones took over the podium and began haranguing his fellow lawmakers. It was as egregious a violation of rules as one could imagine. It clearly called out for punishment. House Republicans expelled Jones and Pearson, and failed by one vote to expel Johnson.

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No surprise: Jones and Pearson became heroes of the left. Pelosi asked contributors to donate to the Tennessee Democratic Party "in solidarity" with Jones and Pearson. Was expulsion too serious a penalty? Censure might have been more appropriate, although Democrats likely would have opposed that, too.

Legislatures run by rules. Lawmaking bodies cannot work if, a few lawmakers are allowed make such a spectacle. The Democratic idea, amplified in media coverage, is that it should be celebrated. Republicans prevailed in the short term, but Democrats are winning the long game, which means we'll see more such behavior in the future.

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