How a bill doesn’t become a law

How a bill doesn't become a law
How a bill doesn't become a law
Getty Images

Speaking in Connecticut yesterday on efforts to reduce gun violence, President Obama raised a point that resonated with me.

In context, he was noting the overwhelming public support for support universal background checks – “How often do 90 percent of Americans agree on anything?” Obama said to laughter – and the fact that public opinion on the issue crosses partisan boundaries. Even large majorities of gun owners and NRS households agree with the American mainstream.

“And yet, there is only one thing that can stand in the way of change that just about everybody agrees on, and that’s politics in Washington. You would think that with those numbers Congress would rush to make this happen. That’s what you would think. If our democracy is working the way it’s supposed to, and 90 percent of the American people agree on something, in the wake of a tragedy you’d think this would not be a heavy lift.”

“If our democracy is working the way it’s supposed to…” is a phrase that stuck with me, largely because it seems our democracy is not working the way it’s supposed to.

Indeed, as of yesterday, 15 Republican senators said they’re prepared to prevent the Senate from even debating any bill that changes any gun law in any way. Forget voting for or against efforts to prevent gun deaths, the GOP lawmakers are prepared to ignore the overwhelming will of the American mainstream and kill popular legislation in its infancy.

In fairness, I should note that this is not a universal attitude among congressional Republicans, and just this morning, Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) said pending legislation “deserves a vote, up-or-down.” Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) added that his party’s filibuster threats are “wrong.”

But the larger trend is hard to miss. As Ezra Klein explained this morning, “Gun control has emerged as an unusually clarifying test case for how Congress really works. On one side of the ledger is most everything that we think moves Congress: Public opinion, a national tragedy, the president’s bully pulpit, elite opinion. On the other side is everything we wish didn’t move Congress: a powerful but increasingly controversial interest group and, arguably, the minority’s natural incentive to foil the majority’s agenda. Guess which side is winning?”

I suspect many Americans have a rudimentary Schoolhouse-Rock-style understanding of how a bill becomes a law, and may expect something like background checks to pass, given the larger circumstances. But, once again, our democracy isn’t working the way it’s supposed to.

Ezra noted some of the problems inherent within public opinion, flagging a New York Times piece that found that many Americans who oppose new gun laws are under the mistaken impression that federal laws already prohibit the purchase of a weapon privately or at a gun show without a background check: “In other words, about 6 out of 10 people who believe we just need to do a better job of enforcing existing laws don’t realize that those laws are far weaker than they think.”

And this in turn only reinforces the public demand for change: most Americans want background checks, and many of those who don’t think the Democratic proposals are already current law.

So why can’t this and other popular ideas even get a vote in Congress? The political establishment is under the impression that there’s “gridlock” because the two parties won’t compromise, and bitter partisanship makes governing practically impossible. Jonathan Bernstein, on the other hand, argued over the weekend, “The American political system is not broken. What’s broken is the Republican Party…. It’s not partisanship. It’s not polarization. It’s not even extremism. It’s the Republican Party.”

Paul Waldman is thinking along similar lines, noting that Republicans no longer respond to traditional political incentives, and we’re left with “a government that can’t govern.”

And so let’s circle back to Obama’s sentiment from late yesterday: “If our democracy is working the way it’s supposed to, and 90 percent of the American people agree on something, in the wake of a tragedy you’d think this would not be a heavy lift.”

In 2013, with today’s Republican Party, isn’t everything a heavy lift?

How a bill doesn't become a law