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Gun Safety, Gridlock, and the Demise of Congress

The fact is that Congress does not need some sort of invitation from the White House in order to do their job. To take affirmative action toward addressing our nation's problems, Congress should put aside its letterhead and stop writing letters to the President and federal agencies asking them to take action.
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In the face of the shooting deaths of 20 young children and six adults in Newtown, CT, people all across this country were hopeful that something might actually get accomplished with respect to gun violence when Senators Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Pat Toomey (R-PA) came together to work on legislation to expand background checks to make it more difficult for criminals and the mentally ill to obtain guns and assault weapons. If nothing else, the hope was that Congress would at least agree to have a debate and vote on possible options to reduce the tragedy of gun violence in this country.

According to Drs. Judith and Sean Palfrey in a New England Journal of Medicine article entitled "Preventing Gun Deaths in Children": "In 2010, gun-related injuries accounted for 6,570 deaths of children and young people (1 to 24 years of age). That includes 7 deaths per day among people 1 to 19 years of age. Gun injuries cause twice as many deaths as cancer, 5 times as many as heart disease, and 15 times as many as infections."

Let me repeat...7 child deaths (and many more serious injuries) per day across this country due to guns.

In response, the Senate managed to have nine votes related to guns, including the following key votes on gun safety: (1) 54-46 in favor of the Machin-Toomey background checks amendment; (2) 52-47 in favor of a Grassley-Cruz proposal to increase funding for criminal prosecution, school safety, and mental health resources and create a task force to go after felons who fail background checks; (3) 58-42 in favor of a Leahy-Collins amendment that makes gun trafficking a federal crime and strengthens the penalties against "straw purchasers"; (4) 40-60 in opposition to a Feinstein amendment by ban certain assault weapons; (5) 56-54 in opposition to an even weaker Lautenberg-Blumenthal version of the assault-weapons ban which would have banned only high-capacity ammunition magazines; and, (6) 95-2 and passed a Harkin-Alexander amendment to improve mental health services in schools and boost support for suicide prevention programs.

Note that, although four of these amendments received a majority vote, only one actually was approved because the Senate has become so horribly dysfunctional that virtually every single vote now requires a 60-vote threshold to pass due to the need to invoke cloture to pass anything due to the threat of a filibuster. As a result of this failure to reach a super-majority threshold, the underlying bill was withdrawn from further consideration.

As President Obama said, "A majority of senators voted 'yes' to protecting more of our citizens with smarter background checks. But by this continuing distortion of Senate rules, a minority was able to block it from moving forward." As a result, the Senate has failed to move forward and the bill has been pulled from the Senate floor. Gridlock and the status quo reigns in Congress, even when the American public is desperately asking its leaders for solutions.

For example, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll on the issue of background checks, "90 percent of Democrats and 84 percent each of Republicans and independents say they support such checks." And yet, the Senate could not muster the 60 votes needed to move forward.

Some rightfully point to the fact that rural areas in the Senate dominate the chamber because, for example, both California and Wyoming have two senators each, despite the fact California has 66 times the population of Wyoming. As Dylan Matthews of the Washington Post finds, "If senators representing 17.82 percent of the population agree, they can get a majority in the 2013 U.S. Senate...And this doesn't even take the filibuster into account. The smallest 20 states amount to 11.27 percent of the U.S. population, but if all of their senators band together they can successfully filibuster legislation."

However, this is not just an issue of rural senators blocking action on gun safety. Congress cannot even move forward on issues of primary importance to rural communities, such as the farm bill. In this case, it is a fight among House Republicans that prevents the bill from even being considered.

The sad reality is that Congress has been brought to a place of paralysis by both hyper-partisanship and its own self-imposed rules: the threat of the filibuster in the Senate and the dependence on the "Hastert Rule" in the House, whereby House leadership typically will not bring legislation to the House floor unless they have a clear support from the majority of the majority party.

The consequences are immense. As Ezra Klein of the Washington Post writes, "...the 112th Congress is no ordinary congress. It's a very bad, no good, terrible Congress. It is, in fact, one of the very worst congresses we have ever had." He cited 14 reasons, which included the fact that they are terribly unproductive and passed the fewest number of public laws in decades while the House of Representatives was repeatedly wasting time by voting 33 times to repeal the Affordable Care Act ("Obamacare") when they knew neither the Senate nor the President would allow it.

The most important reason cited by Klein, as to why the 112th Congress was the "worst Congress ever," may be his 14th one: "There actually are problems they need to solve."

Unfortunately, as the American people look to Congress to address enormous challenges facing our great country, the gridlock and hyper-partisanship has completely paralyzed many Members of Congress and staff. There has been a visible change on Capitol Hill from a place that encouraged positive and creative approaches toward finding solutions and compromises to what would now be described as a defeatist culture where Members and staff are focused on the roadblocks rather than the possibilities to progress. As a result, some of them have given up trying.

For children, in addition to the lack of action on gun safety, there are other enormous challenges facing the next generation that get almost no consideration whatsoever. For example, just this week, UNICEF put out a startling report that shows that our nation's children are falling further and further beyond the rest of the developed world's children. As New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow points out, "...the United States once again ranked among the worst wealthy countries for children, coming in 26th place of 29 countries included. Only Lithuania, Latvia and Romania placed lower, and those were among the poorest countries assessed in the study." Sadly, we are failing our nation's children with virtually no debate or discussion among our elected officials.

Congressional surrender has additional ramifications that goes beyond inaction. In fact, when Congress fails to enact a budget, fails to pass appropriations bills, and fails to reauthorize current laws, power and decision-making increasingly shifts to the Executive Branch. Through executive orders, rules and regulations, and waivers, the President is increasingly the sole actor in the affairs of our country. And, to complete the cycle, rather than introducing, debating, amending, and voting on legislation, Members of Congress buy into the power shift and increasingly issue press releases about letters they have written to the President or a department secretary asking that a certain policy issue get addressed by the Executive Branch. They often no longer even bother to craft legislation to address the issues they are concerned about.

As Klein notes, "...congressional gridlock often leads not to inaction, but to extra-congressional action - that is, action that either skirts Congress altogether or radically subverts the normal legislative process. If you believe government should be accountable, efficient and, for business, predictable, that's not a good outcome. It is, however, an increasingly frequent one."

The effect, according to Klein, is that "...Congress delegates responsibility to others to exercise power on its behalf. It leaves governance in a liminal state. Congress neither musters sufficient support for policies to enact them, nor generates sufficient opposition to policies to stop others from acting on them. The result is not stasis, which seems to be the logical conclusion of gridlock. It is action. It's just a kind of action that is far less accountable, and less effective, than that produced by a fully functioning legislative body."

The fact that the Tea Party pushes for and applauds this very dysfunction in Congress is incredibly ironic because it only further empowers and forces President Obama and his staff to often be the sole actors in addressing many of the major issues facing our country.

In the case of children, the result has led to varying consequences. As a positive, after a filibuster blocked passed of the DREAM Act, the public and those majorities in Congress who supported the DREAM Act asked the President to take action so that DREAM Act-eligible children would no longer be deported. Absent legislative action, the Administration issued a directive, "Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals" (DACA) that provides these youth temporary relief ( from deportation.

As an example of an action that has mixed implications, the failure of Congress to enact legislation fixing the universally acknowledged problems with the education testing requirements in the No Child Left Behind law has resulted in the Administration issued waivers that effectively created a new set of national policies around education accountability.

On the negative side, if the federal budget is put on virtual auto-pilot, the Urban Institute has estimated in its Kids' Share report that "...the share of the federal budget spent on children is projected to fall by almost one-fifth, from 10.4 percent to 8.4 percent of total outlays" over the next decade. In this case, gridlock is clearly the enemy of children.

Some in the Congress seem to want an invitation from the White House to do their job. Others want the President to "provide leadership" on an issue before they are willing to engage. And, others criticize the President for "getting out ahead of Congress" on a problem while never putting forth any solution of their own.

The fact is that Congress does not need some sort of invitation from the White House in order to do their job. To take affirmative action toward addressing our nation's problems, Congress should put aside its letterhead and stop writing letters to the President and federal agencies asking them to take action. Writing letters to the President is the work of the public, advocacy groups, and middle school students.

Instead, Congress needs to get back to the task of being legislators -- people who actually write bills, take real votes (not just Senate cloture votes), and change laws.

Other than the Tea Party and Larry Summers, the rest of the nation is impatiently waiting and, certainly, the children of Newtown deserve much better.