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Gun control and hostage-taking in Congress

Democrats rally outside the Capitol while the sit-in continued in the House chamber.
Democrats rally outside the Capitol while the sit-in continued in the House chamber.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Over the past two weeks, Democrats in the Senate and House have both employed the tactic of a hostage-taking filibuster to try to force votes on gun control onto the legislative agenda. First, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) led a 15-hour talkathon on the Senate floor, blocking an appropriations bill until the Republican majority agreed to votes on two Democratic measures. This week, House Democrats led by Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) launched a sit-in with the same goal: votes on gun control measures in the wake of the Orlando shooting.

Both these actions are filibusters designed to force a new issue onto the chamber agenda by blocking action on one or more measures the majority would like to pass. In my book, I define filibustering as delaying decisions in a legislative chamber for strategic gain. "Strategic gain" can include blocking a bill the minority opposes or holding out for amendments.

But legislators also filibuster to draw attention to issues (e.g., Rand Paul's 2011 filibuster against domestic drone strikes), to block a bill waiting on the chamber agenda, or to delay a bill without killing it. And contrary to some reports, legislators filibuster one bill (a "hostage") to bargain for consideration of another issue (the "ransom").

Here's the breakdown of the various goals I coded for filibusters from 1901 to 2004:

Motives for filibustering 1901-2004

Hostage-taking is a response to the power of the majority party to set the agenda — to decide which issues are discussed and how they will be debated.

There is a lot of evidence that the two parties do not differ in their policy views as much as it appears — neither party wants to abolish Social Security or nationalize the oil industry, and even hot-button issues like same-sex marriage are quickly joining the policy consensus.

But they do differ on which issues they want to debate and how their policy proposals are designed. A GOP majority means votes on taxes and repealing Medicare, and not gun control or raising the minimum wage, unless the minority party forces them to pay attention to Democratic agenda issues.

A critical step in hostage-taking is selecting the right hostage. A good "target" is a bill that the majority party cares about much more than the minority party. Murphy et al. blocked a commerce/justice/science funding bill — not a high priority for the GOP, but the majority party hopes to demonstrate its ability to govern by actually passing appropriations bills this year.

The House Democrats' sit-in delayed a minor health care bill and a financial services funding bill. Of greater political importance, the sit-in crowded out Donald Trump's Hillary Clinton–bashing speech and Speaker Paul Ryan's announcement of the House Republicans' long-promised health care plan.

Hostage-taking may not lead to policy change in the short term, but it can highlight issue contrasts for the next election and possibly lead to future action. A good example is campaign finance reform from 1997 to 2001, when Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and Senate Democrats repeatedly filibustered to force votes on campaign finance reform. This kept the issue alive on the policy and campaign agenda and, more subtly, gave the bill's supporters a chance to refine the bill to attract more support and make better policy. For this reason, today's "publicity stunt" may be tomorrow's law.

My last thought on this topic is that it is surprising the minority party does not do this more often. It is true, as John Patty notes, that the specific proposals the Democrats are advocating are almost universally popular, which helps explain why Democrats aren't afraid of gun control anymore. But gun control probably isn't the only Democratic-supported proposal kept off the agenda by the Republican leadership.

In theory, the Democrats could be filibustering to force votes on a minimum wage increase (as they did in 1996), college education support, etc. — any issue on which they feel they have a popular advantage to highlight.

This post is part of Mischiefs of Faction, an independent political science blog featuring reflections on the party system. See more Mischiefs of Faction posts here.