What a pathetic farce yesterday – and so tiresomely predictable. In fact, I predicted it last December – not because I’m clairvoyant (hardly), but because I’ve been around long enough to know the drill.
If only Mark Twain was still around to chronicle the U.S. Senate’s shame. Nevertheless, this old Twain quote does the job: “Suppose you were an idiot, and suppose you were a member of Congress – but I repeat myself.”
What a pathetic farce yesterday – and so tiresomely predictable. In fact, I predicted it last December – not because I’m clairvoyant (hardly), but because I’ve been around long enough to know the drill. Here’s what I wrote on the morning after Newtown: “Right now there’s buzz that Friday’s massacre is truly the last straw, that now our elected leaders will finally take on the NRA…but don’t hold your breath. Guns are intrinsic to our hyper-violent culture, and dialing back on our fetish would be out of character.”
And as the saying goes, character is destiny.
Anyone who thinks we live in a representative democracy has to be deluded. When bang-bangs are at issue, the will of the people means squat. Ninety percent of the citizenry wanted to expand criminal background checks, to cover virtually all commercial gun sales – yet, in the end, that didn’t matter. The pleas of a congressional colleague who was shot in the head – that didn’t matter. The bipartisan pleas of two pro-gun senators, Pat Toomey and Joe Manchin – that didn’t matter.
Anyone who’s wondering how Congress can so blatantly stiff the public need only understand how the system really works. In the annals of dysfunction, what happened yesterday was the perfect storm.
The gun-fetish lobby, led by the NRA (which in turn shills for the profit-minded gun manufacturers), unleashed its usual reign of terror against lawmakers who miraculously manage to stand upright despite the absence of spines. Most Republican senators predictably paid obeisance – but so did four red-state Democrats, three of whom are up for re-election next year. Hence, this lame lament from Alaska’s Mark Begich, who voted no on expanded background checks: “It’s dangerous to do any type of policy in an emotional moment.” There’s no such comment from freshman Heidi Heitkamp, who was apparently terrified about her re-election prospects in 2018, because she spent the day fleeing the press.
Expanded background checks actually passed the Senate, 54-46. In most allied western nations, that would have been a victory. But not in a chamber ruled by the filibuster (which appears nowhere in the Constitution), where the threshold for passage is 60 votes, where the majority is trumped by the tyranny of the minority. So, on background checks, 90 percent of the American people got trumped by only 46 percent of the senators.
Almost as bad as Russia
Moreover, the chamber is unrepresentative by design; the rural gun-loving states have disproportionate sway. Each state sends two senators to Washington regardless of population. The result is that someone like Heitkamp (North Dakota, population 700,000) has the equivalent voting clout of Bob Casey (Pennsylvania, population 12.7 million). Indeed, according to one recent report, “the Senate may be the least democratic legislative chamber in any developed nation” – with the exceptions of Brazil, Argentina, and Russia.
And, lest we forget, the Republican-controlled House stood ready to trash whatever gun reform came out of the Senate. (Nationwide last year, Democratic House candidates actually got a million more votes than their Republican rivals, but the GOP kept the chamber anyway, thanks to their gerrymandering successes.)
Reportedly, a few Republican senators who were tempted to vote yes on background checks ultimately covered their butts by telling themselves, “Why should I risk myself politically by voting yes, when the House Republicans are going to vote no anyway?”
So there it is: In the wake of Newtown, we get nothing. No ban on assault weapons like the Bushmaster that killed all those kids. No ban on high-capacity ammo clips, because God forbid the next inevitable mass killer should have his freedom impeded. No beefed up reporting on mentally ill people. No agreement to make gun trafficking a federal crime. (All those measures failed yesterday as well.) And not even the modest background check expansion, which would have covered up to 40 percent of all gun sales (yes, that’s the share of sales currently exempted from oversight).
Gun reforms are vowing to fight on, to push back against the NRA and hold pro-gun lawmakers accountable – Mayors Against Illegal Guns: “In 2014, our ever-expanding coalition of supporters will work to make sure that voters don’t forget” – but we’ll see how well that goes. I suppose we can console ourselves with something that Winston Churchill once said – “Democracy is the worst form of government, except all the others” – but I have to wonder how he would’ve ranked our special-interest weaponocracy.
News cycles in the digital era are now measured in milliseconds; the competition to be first trumps any incentive to be accurate. Witness what happened yesterday, in the Boston investigation coverage. The media scoop mash-up went something like this:
“BREAKING! We have exclusively learned or been told that one or maybe two suspected dark-skinned white suspects of interest were expected to be in custody imminently or have already been arrested allegedly.”
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