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Analysis: Taking Direct Aim at Legislative Business as Usual

Maybe the overnight sit-in that captured Washington’s attention will keep gun control in the news. House Democrats' effort fell short, but as Wendy Davis showed three years ago in Texas, the end of the spectacle isn’t necessarily the end of the fight.

Left: Wendy Davis is shown during her 2013 filibuster in the Texas Senate. Right: U.S. House Democrats staged a sit-in on June 22, 2016, in their bid to pass gun control legislation.

*Correction appended.

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Three years to the week after Texas Sen. Wendy Davis filibustered her way into political stardom, the Democrats in the U.S. House used a parliamentary outburst to bring attention to their efforts to get gun-control legislation through Congress.

Like Davis, they were outmaneuvered. Their immediate effort fell short when House Republicans cut off debate long enough to vote on a bill and adjourn until next month.

But as Davis showed three years ago, the end of the spectacle isn’t necessarily the end of the fight. In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court is still considering the constitutionality of the anti-abortion legislation Davis tried to stop (The chief justice said Thursday that the remaining opinions from this term of the court will be announced Monday).

Maybe the overnight sit-in that captured Washington’s attention will keep gun control in the news. If it doesn’t, it’s a certainty that continued mass shootings would continue to drive coverage.

And maybe someone will become a star as a result of the congressional protest.

It kinda worked for Davis. The Fort Worth Democrat cut across the political firmament like a bottle rocket. Everybody oohed and aahed.

A Democratic Party desperate for a gubernatorial candidate — the Castro boys from San Antonio had said ‘Not yet,’ and that sentiment was echoed by Annise Parker, then a popular Houston mayor — found one.

Republicans were caught off guard by her sudden popularity and the enthusiasm of her supporters.

But Davis couldn’t convert her smash single into an album. She was a political Billy Ray Cyrus — a one-hit wonder.

The two events — her filibuster three years ago and the congressional sit-in this week — have some other parallels, too.

Both were marked by public officials ignoring the traditions and, to some extent, the rules of their institutions.

The Texas Senate is used to low-energy debates with periodic outbursts of showboating and a proclivity for smothering any real differences of opinion in a private room behind the Senate chamber where the public is watching.

The Davis filibuster drew a boisterous crowd. It — and the events of the special session that followed — were preposterously newsworthy. The June filibuster itself went viral when The Texas Tribune’s livestream of the proceedings got a presidential boost — a Barack Obama tweet that “Something special is happening in Austin tonight.”During the July debates that followed her filibuster, top state officials said they discovered the crowd wanted to pelt senators with tampons (state police collected them at the doors). Those officials also claimed some protesters had tried to sneak in containers full of feces (a claim that withered when no one could produce the telltale jars). 

Congressional leaders turned off the cameras after Wednesday’s sit-in began, but members broke the rules by broadcasting from their phones. Those videos were picked up by cable news stations, and the show was on.

That’s two kinds of disruption in operation, if you’re keeping score.

Decorum is out. Political minorities have had it — in the Texas Legislature, the Congress and in the presidential primaries, too. Whatever version of Emily Post’s rules of etiquette was in place before has fallen for the moment.

Davis couldn’t convert her smash single into an album. She was a political Billy Ray Cyrus — a one-hit wonder.

You can sit in the aisles and sing hymns with your fellow politicians to your heart’s content, at least until the other side shuts you down.

You can pack the galleries in the Texas Legislature (unless the presiding officer is spry enough to clear them before it matters) to pour gasoline on a filibuster as a deadline approaches.

Those are — arguably — breaches of legislative tradition, an affront to the ways things have always been done. That’s part truth and part whitewash: Legislatures were rarely as well-behaved as many historians would have you believe, and politicians have been bending and breaking rules since rules — and politicians — were invented.

That’s a behavioral disruption.

The other disruption is technological, and takes some of the power to shut things down away from the people in charge. Protests work because they attract attention, and successful protesters can then direct that attention to whatever wrong they’re trying to right.

Shutting off attention shuts off a protest. In Texas, Davis’ filibuster reached far more people than she could have hoped because the technology was readily available. In Washington, shutting down the institutional cameras didn’t do the job; the protesters — Democratic members of Congress — just wired around it.

Davis couldn’t stop the legislation that effectively closed most of the state’s abortion clinics. And Congress might or might not be able to pass any gun bills this year.

But they got your attention, didn’t they?

Correction: An earlier version of this column conflated events from Davis' filibuster and those from the July special session that followed as a result of her filibuster.

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