August 22, 2016

RUBASHKIN | Call Your Congressman

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There is a lot in this life that is predictable. The Patriots are going to make the playoffs. Lemonade is going to get all of the Grammys. Katie Ledecky is going to win. (Win what, you ask? Pretty much everything.)

And what can we predict from the United States Congress, my home for the summer? Well, your best bet is that Congress isn’t going to do very much of anything at all.

Even in more favorable political climates than the current one, the legislative process is slow. By design, most congressional actions suffer through a tortuous gestation period during which they are assailed from all sides and, more often than not, thoroughly expunged of anything meaningful and therefore “controversial.”

While it is true that every once in a while, something big gets done (think ObamaCare), those moments are few and far between, and these days the “big things” usually come pre-negotiated by the leadership and only appear once the outcomes are predetermined. Simply put, there’s usually very little suspense or intrigue on Capitol Hill. Sometimes, however, they just up and throw the rulebook straight out the window. Such was the case with the Great Sit-in of 2016.

On Wednesday, June 22, Democrats in the House of Representatives, frustrated by the lack of congressional response to gun violence in America, decided to take a stand. What they did was against the rules. It was a breach of decorum unprecedented in scope, and it was glorious.

Civil rights hero, Georgia congressman and all-around mensch Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) led the effort, seizing control of the House floor at 11:30 a.m. and proceeding to give the assembled members of both parties an education on gun violence. A dozen or so members of the caucus soon joined him on the floor. Flustered and unwilling to engage, the speaker hastily gaveled the chamber into recess and turned off the C-SPAN cameras that had been broadcasting the day’s events.

But John Lewis did not stand down, and neither did the rest of his party. Over the course of the following 24 hours, over 160 members of Congress occupied the floor of the House of Representatives. Unaided by microphones, representative after representative stood up and spoke of the ways gun violence had affected their district.

At first, only those of us inside the Capitol complex even knew that something was going on. The Republican leadership had cut C-SPAN’s live feed in an attempt silence John Lewis and the Democrats. In another age, the story would have ended along with that official broadcast. But we live in an extraordinary era. Armed with their smartphones and iPads, several congressmen began to live stream the sit-in on a variety of platforms, employing a tactic unheard of just years ago. Before long, the shaky footage from cell phone cameras was picked up by C-SPAN and millions of Americans gained an unvarnished glimpse into their nation’s governing process.

That’s when the calls started pouring in. On most days, my office would field a handful of calls an hour. Callers were rarely constituents, and were almost always furious about something related (tangentially, at best) to the Congressman. The vitriol we were confronted with on a daily basis surprised me. In my time there I was admonished and threatened and called a litany of names and epithets too hateful to put in print. Most days I was reticent to even answer the phone, knowing the verbal assault that awaited me on the other end of the line.

Such was not the case during the sit-in. In what was perhaps the single largest day for our office (in terms of incoming calls) in history, my faith in the decency of the American people was restored to its pre-Capitol Hill level.  The calls we received that day were gracious. They were supportive. The amount of positive energy emanating from the phones was a wonderful thing to feel, in my office and in the offices of Democrats all throughout the Capitol complex.

By acting unpredictably, with a sort of reckless abandon that only a battle-tested and indomitable leader like Rep. Lewis can inspire, the House Democrats awoke something deep within the American people. For once, our politicians stuck out their necks and shouted that they were mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. For once, they refused to be constrained by the arcane formalities that have come to characterize Washington. For once, they spoke out in defiance of the most powerful special interest in America. They spoke, and America responded.

That push for common sense gun safety legislation fell short, as had every other before it. But the sit-in was different. It was refreshing, a bolt of electricity straight to the heart of a normally staid and predictable organization. If we want to effect real change down the road, the sit-in is the model we must emulate. Congress must continue to unshackle themselves from convention; convention is simply not working. Our leaders must attack the challenges of the day with the same vigor and conviction they showed during the sit-in.

That being said, governing is a two-way street. We, as constituents, have a responsibility to let our representatives know that if they stick up for us, we will stick up for them.  So the next time you see your congressman do something that makes you proud, give them a call. Let them know what they’re doing right. Give them the energy they need to continue to fight. Tell them to keep being unpredictable, keep being implacable, keep pushing for progress. When the negative voices drown out all else, it’s no wonder nothing gets done. It is only with a positive attitude and an eye on the future that we can move forward as a nation.

Jacob Rubashkin is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at jrubashkin@cornellsun.com. The Jacobin appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.        

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