WASHINGTON ― Newly proposed rule changes by Republicans to fine lawmakers for future breaches of decorum on the chamber floor sound an awful lot like something Russian President Vladimir Putin would do, according to one House Democrat.
On a call with his colleagues Thursday, Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.) called the move a “Putin-like” response to a sit-in Democrats staged earlier this year as they attempted to pressure Republicans for a vote on gun control measures.
During the 24-hour protest, Democrats took photos and live-streamed their speeches, calling for votes on legislation to bar those on a no-fly list from purchasing firearms and require background checks for gun purchases at gun shows and online. Democrats decided to hold the demonstration after a gunman killed 49 people in a Florida nightclub, making it the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history.
Republicans adjourned the House in response, shutting off microphones first, then the cameras.
Larson confirmed in an interview with The Huffington Post after the call that he compared Republican leaders to Putin.
“It was Putin-like. Lately with Republicans’ love of the Russians, we have to remind them that this isn’t the old Politburo,” Larson said, referring to the policy-making body under the former Soviet Union’s Communist Party. “This is still a democracy.”
The newly proposed rule, which members will vote on as part of a larger package when they return in January, would grant the sergeant-at-arms the authority to fine lawmakers up to $2,500 for recording video or taking photos on the House floor.
Larson called the changes “unprecedented and unconstitutional,” and a “zealous overreach” by Republicans.
“It’s a strong-armed way of saying, ‘We’re showing you who’s in charge here,’” he said, adding that House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Republican leadership did it to “throw red meat” to conservatives.
In the months following the sit-in, the conservative House Freedom Caucus and other members called for leaders to exert some form of punishment on Democrats who had organized and led the protest.
“Any analogies made to other foreign governments would best be used to describe the actions that happened on the House floor during the sit-in,” said one House Freedom Caucus member, requesting anonymity to speak more freely.
Larson and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) met with Ryan at the speaker’s request days after the the sit-in.
“To be charitable, this is uncharacteristic of Paul; he’s acting in response to the Freedom Caucus, who, when we met with him, he indicated they wanted to punish the members,” Larson said.
Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), newly elected chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, pushed back against the notion that his caucus members were behind the new fines.
It’s a strong-armed way of saying, ‘We’re showing you who’s in charge here.’
Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.)
“There are several rules changes that are important to the House Freedom Caucus, most of which focus on making sure every member has a voice,” Meadows told HuffPost. “Any suggestion that HFC proposed a rule to fine members is pure fiction.
While prior rules prohibited live-streams and photos to be taken on the floor, no fines could be implemented. Members, however, could be censured as punishment. The new fine would, according to Larson, immediately be deducted from lawmaker’s paychecks.
Meadows, too, expressed some doubt over the constitutionality of the change.
“While HFC has not had any formal discussions on the proposed rule, private conversations among some members would suggest that support of the rule is still an open question,” he said.
Ryan’s spokeswoman, AshLee Strong, said the changes “will help ensure that order and decorum are preserved” in the House “so lawmakers can do the people’s work.”
Larson and Lewis are waiting to hear back from the House parliamentarian on whether there is any precedent to establishing such a penalty on members over floor decorum. So far they haven’t come up with anything, Larson said.
“I think they will be hard-pressed to find a precedent,” he said. “Yes, it was an act of civil disobedience, but this [new rule] is not dissimilar to a poll tax or some form of suppression to people’s ability to vote and speak. They are saying, ‘You better be careful what you say on that floor.’ And who determines that you were out of order? And who determines that a violation actually occurred and what is the precedent for this?”
In a letter sent to Ryan on Thursday, Larson and Lewis urged the speaker to “reconsider the consequences of such a rules change.”
“The proposed changes are tantamount to silencing the minority party and the voices of thousands of gun violence victims ― for the benefit of special interests who hold the House floor hostage,” the two lawmakers wrote, according to a copy provided to HuffPost.
Matt Fuller contributed reporting.