In Congress, the gavel is but a crude, rudimentary tool. It’s simply a wooden mallet, crafted by talented carpenters in the House of Representatives wood shop.
The gavel rests inertly on the rostrum of the House chamber. But the gavel quickly mutates from its inanimate state into a powerful tool, symbol or even threat when coaxed by the House speaker from hibernation.
A swift rap on the dais indicates something important is happening. The House is coming into session. The House is going out of session. The House is starting a vote. The House is ending a vote.
Often a sequence of emphatic, authoritative strikes indicates the House is out of order -- or a member is out of order -- and lawmakers had better get in line or simmer down.
Former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., is now serving time and has his issues. But in an interview some years ago, Hastert underscored the prominence of the gavel in the House.
“The symbol of power is the gavel,” Hastert said. “If you have the gavel, you have control of the House.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., faces a conundrum. Democrats abused House rules and decorum when they snatched the chamber for a 26-hour, Civil Rights-era sit-in about firearms last week. Democrats are threatening more guerilla tactics if Ryan doesn’t grant them the kind of vote they want on gun legislation soon.
On Saturday, the Congressional Black Caucus urged Democrats be “as disruptive to Speaker Ryan as possible" on the issue.
In a memo to House Democrats, the CBC urged a "day of action on the (House) floor in regards to gun violence."
In addition to asking members to give speeches Tuesday upon returning to Capitol Hill, the CBC also wants them to attend a rules meeting that sets up the debate on terrorism-gun legislation slated for action on the floor Wednesday.
The memo also states: "During votes -- members are encouraged to have a picture (not poster board, but a printed piece of paper with an image of a constituent killed by a firearm.)"
“The speaker is in a box,” said one Republican lawmaker who is a confidante of Ryan. “Some members are really pissed off.”
GOPers are agitated at Democrats for their floor gambit. And some are mad at leadership for not quashing the rebellion more forcefully.
How does Ryan assert authority -- and enforce order in the House -- with such a quotidian, wooden tool? Especially if ornery Democrats are unwilling to acknowledge the emblematic dominion of that tool and continue their unprecedented sit-in or other mischief?
It’s just a gavel.
But then again, it’s the gavel.
“It’s really the only thing the speaker really has,” said one longtime House hand when asked about what Ryan should do.
Republicans won’t stand for additional Democratic capers. By the same token, an aggressive effort to remove, arrest or sanction Democratic offenders is not the optic the speaker wants. Plus, that plays directly into the Democrats’ hands.
“There would indeed be a confrontation,” said one senior House source if Democrats perceive efforts to restore order as too heavy handed.
Multiple GOP lawmakers told Fox News the last thing they wanted to see was House security officials “hauling out (Rep.) John Lewis (D-Ga.) in handcuffs.”
Lewis is the admired civil rights figure who marched with Martin Luther King. The firearms sit-in was the brainchild of Lewis and Rep. John Larson, D-Conn.
Sources close the speaker indicate the Republican leadership continues to evaluate options and insists there will be will action if the Democratic escapades continue.
“We are not going to handle it the same way,” warned Ryan on WISN-TV in Milwaukee. “We will not take this. We will not tolerate this.”
Rep. Steve Israel, a New York Democrat and top lieutenant to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said after Ryan’s threat.
“Did he think we would go quietly into night?” Israel asked. “We will meet him here.”
It’s pretty clear that Democrats violated several House rules en masse.
House Rule IV states “the Hall of the House shall be used only for the legislative business of the House.”
Democrats commandeered the floor for hours on end when the House didn’t meet.
House Rule V governs telecasts from the floor. The speaker controls cameras and microphones in the chamber.
A close reading of Rule V implies that telecasts from the chamber are only permitted via the internal House system (which C-SPAN and other media use for news purposes) when the chamber is in session.
Thus, those cameras and microphones weren’t on during most of the Democrats’ demonstration. But Rule V is vague.
The provision governs only how the House and media may use the established TV/audio system. The rule is silent on expressly forbidding auxiliary telecasts from the chamber -- now possible thanks to new technology.
That leads to Clause 5 of House Rule XVII, which addresses “comportment” by members in the House chamber.
Rule XVII bars lawmakers from using “a mobile electronic device that impairs decorum.” This provision is listed right next to directives prohibiting smoking in the chamber or the donning of hats. House Democrats deployed iPhones and iPads to stream their uprising via Periscope and Facebook.
Rule XVII asserts that the “Sergeant at Arms is charged with the strict enforcement of this clause.”
Last week, Ryan elected to show deference to the Democrats. House Republican leaders specifically asked the Sergeant at Arms and U.S. Capitol Police to back off.
This sparked anger from some Republicans who insisted that House officials demand order. Some Democrats practically begged for an escalation.
The House hasn’t formally arrested a member on the floor since a dead-of-night, 1858 fracas between Reps. Galusha Grow, R-Pa., and Laurence Keitt, D-S.C.
House Speaker James Orr, R-S.C., ordered the Sergeant at Arms to detain combatants as some 30 members joined the melee. However, records about the incident are incomplete at best.
During a 2012 floor speech after the killing of Trayvon Martin, Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., wore a hoodie and sunglasses to protest racial profiling.
Rep. Gregg Harper, R-Miss., presided over the House that day and admonished Rush to stop his speech. Rush ignored the order. Harper then banged the gavel 29 times.
Assistant to the Sergeant-at-Arms Joyce Hamlett escorted Rush out of the chamber. The House took no other action against the Illinois Democrat.
It’s a lot easier to handle the alleged transgressions of one member compared to an estimated 170-plus members of the 187-member House Democratic Caucus who seized the floor in protest.
But it all comes back to the symbolism of the gavel -- and whether lawmakers respect the authority of the gavel.
Security officials are enfeebled if Democrats ignore directives of the speaker. If Democrats are indeed suspected of violating House rules, there could be a direct referral of nearly the entire Democratic Caucus to the Ethics Committee.
There’s already a “civilian” complaint before the quasi-official Office of Congressional Ethics (separate from the House Ethics Committee). The OCE can hand the matter over to the Ethics committee if it determines the allegations hold water.
Democrats argue they’ll stand down if they at least get a vote on gun issues which they like.
“The issue here isn’t protocol or politesse or decorum,” said Virginia Rep. Gerry Connolly, said after fellow Democrats staged a brief rumble over guns on the House floor during a 2-minute-and-36-second session Tuesday. “We want a simple vote.”
On Thursday, Ryan announced the House would vote on a bill next week to curb radicalization and also give the U.S. attorney general the opportunity to delay firearm acquisitions by prospective terrorists for up to three days.
Democrats immediately derided the effort.
“Bringing up a bill authored by the NRA just isn’t going to cut it,” argued Pelosi’s spokesman, Drew Hammill.
But after a Friday conference call, a Democratic aide says Lewis and Larson want to meet with the speaker about two possible amendments to the bill: one provision is on background checks. The other would block those on the no-fly list from purchasing guns.
Democrats hope the GOP leadership will at least grant them a vote on those amendments on the floor -- even if they don’t pass. If Democrats don’t get a vote, Fox News is told they may reconsider extracurriculars.
In addition to the gavel, the House possesses an additional, more formal symbol: the mace. The mace is a long, black and silver pole that stands next to the dais.
House officials bring the mace onto the floor when the House begins its daily sessions. The Sergeant at Arms is supposed to “present” the mace and hold it in front of unruly members if they cause trouble on the floor.
As far as anyone can tell, the House hasn’t deployed the mace in that fashion since a 1994 kerfuffle between Reps. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., and Pete King, R-N.Y.
Yes, there are House rules. Yes, there is action the speaker’s Office and Sergeant at Arms Office can take against members. There is the ethics process.
But in the end, this is all about the gavel and its distinctive,
sharp sound when rapped on the dais. Lawmakers know they’re supposed to respond to the gavel and respect the person swinging it – be it Paul Ryan or someone
Otherwise, the gavel is just a gavel. A rude, brittle mallet, bereft of symbolism.
And certainly lacking any power.