Usually when operators turn off the television cameras in the U.S. House of Representatives, a cone of silence descends over the chamber. No one outside sees or hears what is going on.
So when Rep. Eric Swalwell, a California Democrat, and a handful of other lawmakers fired up apps on their cell phones to offer an unauthorized live stream of a sit-in over gun control, it not only broke rules against the use of electronic devices on the House floor. It marked a minor milestone in digital media history, for better or worse.
Thousands of people tuned in, then tens of thousands. By Thursday morning, Rep. Scott Peters, another California Democrat, said he and the other legislators who offered live feeds of the sit-in had tallied two million “likes,” a level of viral popularity that he said made “for a pretty remarkable day.”
Speaker Paul Ryan, a Republican, decried the sit-in as “a publicity stunt, a fund-raising stunt” and said Democrats were simply “trying to get on TV.” His press secretary, AshLee Strong, said “the rules of the House will be enforced,” without specifying what kind of sanctions the speaker might impose on the renegade digital lawmakers.
Twitter and Periscope take you where other cameras don’t.
Kayvon Beykpour, Periscope
For his part, Swalwell said he and a handful of other members of Congress felt briefly like “cable news moguls running our own independent stations.”
Tech companies were also jubilant over the attention.
“This is an example of what drives us. Twitter and Periscope take you where other cameras don’t – letting you experience breaking news through the eyes of those living it,” said Kayvon Beykpour, the co-founder and chief executive of Periscope, the live streaming video app acquired by Twitter before its launch last year.
It’s also a reminder that in Washington, there are many institutions whose rules have yet to catch up with new technology.
It wasn’t until 3:12 a.m. Thursday – nearly 16 hours after the House sit-in had begun – that the Republican leadership sent out a “notice of decorum,” reminding legislators that the rules bar the use of electronic devices, including cellular phones and video cameras, that could impair the chamber’s propriety and dignity.
“The long custom of disallowing even still photography in the chamber is based at least in part on the notion that an image having this setting as its backdrop might be taken to carry the imprimatur of the House,” the statement said in part.
Such rules have “been contentious for a very long time,” said Matthew Hindman, an assistant professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University in the capital. In part, they are meant to avoid the broadcast of embarrassing images of lawmakers speaking to an empty chamber. But new technology is making the formal control of television images harder to police, he said.
“It’s a very different political spectacle to see and hear these members engaged in this sit-in then to just read it as text,” Hindman said. “The ability of the House leadership to control the message the public receives is getting more circumscribed. This is an important shift.”
I don’t think electronic devices should be banned from the House floor. It’s the people’s floor.
Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif.
The video live streams of the sit-in offered viewers samizdat-like images of the House that people normally don’t see – lawmakers seated on the carpeting, some looking a little bedraggled.
House Democrats launched the sit-in to push for gun control in the wake of a mass shooting at an Orlando gay nightclub that took the lives of 49 people and the gunman. Four gun control measures did not pass in the Senate this week, and a House amendment on gun control failed in a committee vote, a sign of a lack of political support on the Hill.
Swalwell, who represents a district on the East Bay across from San Francisco and Silicon Valley, sounded unrepentant about breaking House rules.
“Transparency is a good thing. I don’t think electronic devices should be banned from the House floor. It’s the people’s floor,” Swalwell said in a telephone interview.
Swalwell, Peters and a third congressman, Texas Democrat Beto O’Rourke, of El Paso, were those most involved in offering live video streams. Swalwell and Peters used Periscope while O’Rourke fed to Facebook Live, Peters said.
An aide had tried to bring Peters, whose district includes part of San Diego, a tripod to use to steady his cell phone but couldn’t get past the sergeant at arms.
“I found a way to rest it (the cell phone) on the upholstery on the front row seat. So all I had to do was keep the phone charged and keep people from sitting on the seat,” Peters said.
Soon after starting the live feeds, Peters said reaction was immediate.
“The app provides you these real time comments,” he said, and they began to flow across his screen. “It (was) thousands of comments. They’ll just fill up the screen, they’ll disappear, just as fast as you can read them.”
C-SPAN, the private nonprofit cable channel that normally broadcasts the official signals from Capitol Hill chambers, turned to the Periscope feeds from the members of Congress once the House leadership ordered the official cameras turned off.
“People would come in and tell us, ‘Your feed is on C-SPAN.’ We felt like it had become a really important conduit for a conversation involving the American people and that they were right there with us,” Peters said.
Ryan said he worried that the sit-in and its unauthorized broadcast set “a very dangerous precedent.”
“We’re reviewing everything right now to see what happened and how to bring order to this chaos,” Ryan said.
A Democrat who took part in the sit-in, Rep. William Lacy Clay, a Missouri Democrat, scoffed at the idea that the Republican leadership could impose a significant sanction on those who took part.
“I don’t see how they could penalize us other than to turn off the lights and the air conditioning,” Clay said.
Tim Johnson: 202-383-6028; @timjohnson4