Anomalies in Washington

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The Signal
Guns and Concessions
Why are U.S. congressional Democrats and Republicans working together? Bill Scher on the limits of polarization in America.
Gabe Pierce
Gabe Pierce
“The most significant piece of anti–gun violence legislation in nearly 30 years” may soon come out of the United States Senate, according to Senator Chris Murphy. He was announcing, last week, that 10 Democrats and 10 Republicans had aligned on a “framework” for legislative action following a series of terrible mass shootings across the U.S., including at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, and an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas. On Tuesday afternoon, after days of additional negotiations, Murphy said the senators involved had reached a deal on legislative language for their effort. While the reforms they’re now proposing are moderate relative to what American gun-control advocates are looking for, the agreement could lead to unexpected movement on an intransigent issue. Acute political division is now so commonplace in the U.S. that it’s become almost a cliche to remark on it, but here, suddenly, is what appears to be a major departure from the pattern. What accounts for it?
Bill Scher is a U.S. journalist and a contributor to The Washington Monthly, RealClearPolitics, and Politico Magazine. As Scher sees it, hyper-partisanship and polarization surely remain defining features of American democracy, but the U.S. Congress and the White House have nevertheless been pulling off bipartisan breakthroughs with some regularity. Those achievements have come in part because Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has decided not to be “maximally oppositional” with Biden, as Scher puts it, allowing the president occasional victories, including on infrastructure, U.S. Postal Service reform, and foreign policy. This in turn has given Biden the chance to claim that he’s fulfilled his campaign promise to work with his political opposition. Still, to Scher, the president can’t seem to decide whether to take credit for getting the government to function or to blame Republicans for the government dysfunction that remains. The larger dynamic shaping these relations and decisions, Scher says, is that American politicians today are often wary of engaging in, and then hesitant to celebrate, bipartisanship—anticipating that many of their base voters will see compromises as betrayals. Of course, this means American voters may be less aware of where the parties are finding common ground and working together, contributing to the overwhelming public sense that they’re only and always hopelessly divided.
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Graham Vyse: How do you understand the new U.S. Senate framework to address gun violence?
Bill Scher: It’s intended to give money to states to support “crisis intervention.” Senators are still debating how much of that should be to incentivize “red flag” laws—laws that give authorities the right to take guns away from Americans posing a danger to themselves or others—versus alternative forms of crisis intervention. The framework also includes money for mental-heath services, including school-based services; funding for school-safety measures; enhanced background checks for gun buyers under the age of 21; and a crackdown on illegal gun trafficking. In addition, senators are talking about closing the so-called “boyfriend loophole.” At the moment, if you’re a convicted domestic abuser who’s married or cohabitating, you’re put in a database so you can’t purchase a weapon, but if you’re merely in a relationship with someone—not married or cohabitating—you aren’t banned from making that purchase. Democrats want to change that. Republicans are entertaining the idea. We’ll see what comes of it.
Vyse: What does the framework indicate about where Democratic and Republican senators agree and disagree on how to reduce gun violence in America?
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Scher: It’s striking that the framework isn’t narrowly tailored only to address the specifics of the recent shooting massacres in Buffalo and Uvalde. Every incident of gun violence has its own particulars, but if you’re always preoccupied with the specifics of something that just happened, you may overlook other good policy ideas to address the broader problem. Keep in mind that the vast majority of gun deaths in the U.S. aren’t from mass shootings or even homicides. They’re mostly from suicides.
Since a lot of Republicans want to move the gun-violence debate away from ideas like banning guns or restricting gun access, they’re reasonably comfortable talking about this issue as a mental-health problem. Now some Senate Republicans appear to be thinking, If we’re saying this is about mental health, let’s actually invest in mental-health resources to help prevent some of these catastrophes. On the Democratic side, you have people like Chris Murphy—the senator from Connecticut, where the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting took place in 2012—who supports much more sweeping gun-control policies but is being pragmatic. He’s saying that anything the Senate can do—anything that might save a single life—is worth doing.
You’re also seeing some strident gun-rights advocates unhappy that the 10 Republican senators supporting this framework—led by John Cornyn and Tom Tillis, with the backing of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell—are giving Democrats too much. For instance, some of these advocates see “red flag” laws as a means of taking away someone’s guns without due process. There are similar concerns about closing the “boyfriend loophole.” Still, the senators supporting the framework aren’t talking about banning any class of gun or prohibiting any type of ammunition, or limiting the size of magazine clips. At least on the surface, the reforms under consideration don’t contradict the fundamental conservative principle that Americans have the right to buy guns.
Meanwhile, this is all happening at a moment when Senate Republicans, largely with McConnell’s encouragement, haven’t been trying to create maximum dysfunction for the Biden administration. A lot of Democrats, including a lot of progressives, thought that was McConnell’s strategy: Don’t give Biden anything. Throw a wrench into the works at every opportunity. Then, when the country looks ungovernable, blame the Democrats for failing to get anything done with their congressional majority and Biden in the White House. In fact, that hasn’t been McConnell’s approach. He doesn’t want to help Democrats with their biggest legislative proposals. He doesn’t want to help them transform American society in ways progressives would like. But he’s calculated that Republicans should do the bare minimum—and maybe even a little more than the bare minimum—to demonstrate that they’re capable of governing and not out to burn the country down. He also thinks that will help Republicans avoid taking blame for any bad things happening under Biden’s leadership.
Mike Stoll
Mike Stoll
More from Bill Scher at The Signal:
In the earliest days of his administration, Biden was able to extend the Trump-era Paycheck Protection Program for a few months to help small businesses struggling because of Covid. You might say that’s a minor accomplishment. It also might not be surprising, given that Republicans like small businesses, and it wasn’t a signature Biden initiative. But I saw it as a sign that Republicans were willing to work with the president—at least to some extent. There was a moment when Medicare cuts were going to take effect automatically and Republicans allowed Biden to suspend them. And there were bigger initiatives like $1.2 trillion in infrastructure spending, raising the U.S. debt limit, and—though it didn’t get much media attention—a fairly substantial reform of the U.S. Postal Service to prevent it from going into bankruptcy. There’s been almost no partisan bickering in Washington over America giving money to the Ukrainian resistance to Russia’s invasion. Biden also signed the bipartisan Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, banning imports from the Xinjiang region of China on the grounds that Beijing’s authorities there are committing genocide against Uyghur Muslims.”
Biden’s clearly enabled some bipartisanship in the U.S. Congress. He’s even gone as far as calling McConnell a “man of honor,” frustrating some Democrats. My criticism of Biden is that there’s some dissonance in his rhetoric on this issue. He toggles between saying he’s getting things done with Republicans and then saying things like, ‘This is not your father’s Republican Party,’ suggesting Republicans don’t want to get anything done after all. He’ll say he can do business with McConnell and then say Americans need to vote for Democrats in the midterms so that Democrats can do more things on their own. Now, it’s understandable that his narrative would be complicated; there are some things Democrats have done by themselves and more things they want to do by themselves, even as there are other things they’ve done with Republicans. The problem is that Biden hasn’t synthesized all of this into a perspective the average voter can grasp, which makes selling his accomplishments harder.”
There was cooperation in Washington during the Clinton era, but the fight over healthcare reform was very fractious. There was a lot of invective between Clinton and the Republicans. I mean, they impeached the guy. Obama’s tenure was also very fractious, with heated words and Republican obstruction, even though Obama had more bipartisan accomplishments than many people recognize. The Trump era was its own mess. Compared to all that, Washington in the Biden era is pretty civil.”
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