New Rule Bars Lawmakers From Taking Video in House Chambers as Critics Fear Less Transparency

PHOTO: House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI), swears in new members of Congress in the House Chamber, Jan. 3, 2017, in Washington. Today the House of Representatives reconvened with the start of the 115th Congress. PlayMark Wilson/Getty Images
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The House of Representatives approved a rule today prohibiting members of Congress from using phones or other personal electronic devices to record or broadcast material on the chamber floor.

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The rule, passed with a series of rules to govern the newly sworn-in Congress, was written in response to a sit-in that Democrats held last summer when Republicans recessed without taking up legislation to combat gun violence.

The sit-in quickly spread on social media even though the official cameras on the floor of the House were switched off.

Under the new rule, however, the sergeant at arms will be able to fine members for recording or broadcasting activity in the House. Democrats argued the rule was unconstitutional, would limit their freedom of expression and weaken transparency on Capitol Hill. After the rule passed, Democrats defiantly took pictures inside the House chamber with their flashes on and were quickly urged to follow the chamber rules.

Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., who led the summer sit-in, spoke passionately on the floor against the rule and likened it to the oppression he felt during civil-rights-era protests.

“We should never ever give up the right to protest,” he said. “We were elected to stand on the courage of our convictions not to sit here to rot and hide ... I am not afraid. I have been fined before.”

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., urged her colleagues to fight the rule even if it passed.

“What other ways will they deprive us for communicating with the American people?” she asked on the floor of the House before the vote.

Earlier in the day, Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee released a letter signed by more than 35 law professors and scholars raising constitutional concerns about the rule.

“The unprecedented delegation of the House punishment power to an administrative officer is designed to restrict activity that is at the core of the First Amendment freedom of speech,” the letter reads.

“The changes would give an administrative officer the power to do what no single member of Congress could do — act alone to punish and fine another member. The unprecedented delegation of systematic authority to assess fines to officers of the house —in this case the sergeant at arms and the chief administrative officer — removes the power from where it belongs: the members themselves acting as a body,” the letter added.

Republicans, however, maintained that the rule was necessary for preserving decorum in the house. Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions, R-Texas, ended debate by promising to continue to listen to his colleagues’ concerns from across the aisle and make sure they felt they had appropriate avenues to be heard.

“Decorum comes with avoiding chaos, and what has always allowed this body to be different than any other body in the world is the discipline or rules and order and procedures. Mutual respect for each other, the opportunity to be heard,” he said.

After objections from Democrats, Republicans amended the rule on Monday evening so that lawmakers who are fined may appeal the decision to the House Ethics Committee.

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