The Speaker's Lobby: Guerilla Warfare
By: Chad Pergram, FOX News
12 August 2009
The Viet Cong were masters at it. So was the FARC in Colombia. The Zapatistas bloodied the Mexican government in the southern state of Chiapas in the mid-1990s. Snipers converted Sarajevo's alleys into a shooting gallery. And the Mujahedeen nearly annihilated Soviet army from the caves and crevices of Afghanistan.
Guerilla warfare is the use of unconventional, ambush tactics to combat a more formal, organized opponent. And even if guerillas aren't completely successful, they can antagonize their adversary, prod them into errors, strain resources and force rival casualties.
The approach can demoralize an opponent. And produce results.
Guerilla strategies can be successful in the political arena, too. And this August, Republicans are waging guerilla combat on Congressional Democrats and President Obama's health care reform plan.
For two weeks now, people have unleashed a political torrent at Democrats during town hall meetings. They've pirated the theme of the meetings, heckled lawmakers, hectored their aides, blocked them from leaving in their cars and dashed any modicum of civil discourse. Skillfully, Republicans also laid traps for Democrats. The protesters arrive at the meetings armed with cell phone cameras and video recorders. Goad a lawmaker into an intemperate response and you can be sure to see the clip pop up on YouTube.
If Democrats criticize the high-decibel methods of the people at the meetings, GOP leaders spring from the brush to declare that they are just exercising their First Amendment rights. And any effort to muzzle them is patently unconstitutional.
"There's nothing more American than letting your elected representatives know how you feel about important issues facing the nation," said House Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence (R-IN) on FOX.
One of the hallmarks of guerilla fighting is to anger an opponent and spur them into an overly-aggressive response. Republicans feel they did just that when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) penned an op-ed in USA Today. The Democratic duo argued that the town hall disruptions were "simply un-American" and accused Republicans of waging an "ugly campaign."
Certainly, many Democratic loyalists applauded Pelosi and Hoyer for declaring war on the town hall contretemps. But it prompted an angry response from House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH).
"To label Americans who are expressing vocal opposition to the Democrats' plan 'un-American' is outrageous and reprehensible," Boehner said in a statement.
Other Democrats, like Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) took a less harsh tact than Pelosi and Hoyer.
"Just shouting stuff out isn't going to help," McCaskill told a confrontation in Poplar Bluff, MO.
She then chastised the throng.
"You know Missouri manners. I will be here for a while. You will get a chance to chew on me," McCaskill said.
Political guerilla tactics are typically the province of the minority party. Which perhaps explains why Republicans are using this gambit now. But the GOP took the same approach last August when they held rump sessions on the House floor when Congress was out of session.
After the House adjourned for the August recess, Republicans seized the floor each day for a month to talk about the then-skyrocketing price of fuel. House GOPers then escorted scores of tourists and constituents to the floor to hear them excoriate the Democrats' energy policy.
The effort was a bald stunt. But it earned Republicans a month of free press while most in the media focused on preparations for the 2008 political conventions.
The Republicans then criticized Pelosi and the Democrats for "shutting off the lights" and "silencing the microphones" and switching off cameras while they conducted their faux sessions.
"This is the people's House," thundered Rep. Thad McCotter (R-MI). "This is not Pelosi's politburo."
Never mind that a majority of House members actually voted to adjourn for the month. The House controls the audio and video systems which provide a feed of the floor debate to Congressional offices and news organizations. In other words, if the House isn't in session, the cameras and mics aren't on. And had former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) truly made good on his promise of transparency when the GOP won control of the House in 1994, independent news organizations would have been able to enter the chamber to record audio and video of the Republican dustup.
But, this is guerilla warfare. And Republicans conveniently ignored those factoids as they regaled crowd after crowd of what they perceived as Democratic misdeeds last August.
This summer, Democrats countered the Republican floor antics with some guerilla efforts of their own.
House Administration Committee Chairman Robert Brady (D-PA) composed a memo to all lawmakers indicating that workers will be doing construction and renovation projects in the House chamber throughout the month. They'll install a hydraulic lift to help with accessibility to the rostrum. They'll also put in new computers and vote tally boards.
"Access to the chamber and gallery will be restricted during the period of construction activity," Brady wrote.
Undertaking such projects are not unusual during a lengthy recess. After all, this is the only time when workers can have unfettered access to the chamber's infrastructure.
But Brady made a pre-emptive strike on another round of potential GOP guerilla warfare when he added this paragraph to his missive:
"I wish to remind all Members that the use of the floor during recess periods is governed by the Rules of the House. Rule IV of the Rules provides that 'The Hall of the House shall be used only for the legislative business of the House and for caucus and conference meetings of its Members, except when the House agrees to take part in any ceremonies to be observed therein. The Speaker may not entertain a motion for the suspension of this clause.'"
Brady then asked that all lawmakers "follow House Rules with respect to appropriate use of the floor at all times."
House Democrats gave Republicans great leeway last summer to use the floor on a daily basis. And regardless of the need for work in the House chamber, Democrats weren't going to get snookered again this summer.
But this August, Democrats are still battering Republican guerillas at town meetings around the country. Some cancelled the sessions. Others resorted to conducting telephone town halls.
Democrats learned their lesson about the House floor last year. And they've tried to tamp down town hall protests this August. But with little success. Democrats are fighting a conventional war against unconventional forces. Meantime, the guerillas soldier on, lobbing grenades of political invective at Democrats from atop craggy perches and from behind rocks of the American political landscape.
- Chad Pergram covers Congress for FOX News. He's won an Edward R. Murrow Award and the Joan Barone Award for his reporting on Capitol Hill.