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Can They Do That? These Rules Govern Protests on House Floor

Democrats are currently engaged in a sit-in on the House floor in an effort to force a vote on gun control measures. What rules are in play?
Rep. John Lewis and other House Democrats members sit in on the house floor for a vote on gun safety.
Rep. John Lewis and other House Democrats members sit in on the house floor for a vote on gun safety.Sen. Cory Booker via Twitter

Democrats, led by civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis, remained engaged early Thursday in a sit-in on the House floor in an effort to force a vote on gun control measures. Are they allowed to do that? Has this happened before?

Here's everything you need to know about the rules surrounding a protest like this.

What are the rules for this situation?

The House is currently in recess, and under the rules, the speaker is generally empowered "to preserve order and decorum." He has the ability to clear the lobby and galleries in the event of "disorderly conduct" and can direct the House's sergeant-at-arms to do so.

Related:House Democrats Hold Sit-In on Gun Control

Access to the House floor can be limited to "all persons except those privileged to remain," which usually means House members and authorized staff and selected authorized guests.

Bottom line: If members do not leave the floor and no compromise is reached, it is largely up to Speaker Paul Ryan to decide whether to use the authority of the House to seek to clear the floor and/or sanction members, or to keep the House in recess and wait out the issue.

Is there any precedent for this?

There was a stand-off in 2003, at a House Ways and Means hearing on retirement rules, where members broke decorum with insults, made apparent threats and walked out of the hearing.

The chairman, Rep. Bill Thomas, said he called the sergeant-at-arms for order in the committee and asked Capitol police to remove the Democrats if needed. That controversial move was discussed on the floor, where Lewis likened the tactics to civil rights-era abuses of a "police state." Thomas later apologized — the issue was essentially resolved without police getting physically involved.

Are pictures allowed?

No. House members are violating rules by sharing pictures and video of the sit-in. House rules state that people on the floor may not “use a mobile electronic device that impairs decorum." The sergeant-at-arms is instructing members to refrain from doing so, according to Rep. John Yarmuth. This is a typical restriction on the House floor and not specific to the sit-in.

NBC News' Frank Thorp notes that as speaker, Boehner used to implore members not to use their phones for sharing pictures and video. Ryan has not emphasized that as much to date.

Has this rule been violated before?

Yes. Freshman Congressman Mike Bishop tweeted a picture while presiding over the House last year. He deleted it after Thorp pointed out the violation.

Members also appear to make occasional knowing violations for special occasions. The main example is taking pictures at the State of the Union — which is a special case where the House is not debating or governing. Otherwise, the rule is generally followed.

Is there ever a time when pictures are allowed to be posted from the floor?

Yes. During the opening hour of each session of Congress, House rules have not been technically adopted and members have been known to post photos during that time.

What’s the bottom line?

Democrats conducting the sit-in may not care much about violating the rules, since one can argue the entire sit-in is a challenge to how the House normally operates under the rules.