April 17, 2013

As expected this afternoon, the Manchin-Toomey amendment on background checks was defeated by filibuster: A solid majority of the Senate supported the amendment, but with 60 votes needed the amendment fell five votes short. The actual vote was 54-46, with Harry Reid switching to “no” for procedural reasons in order to be able to bring it back in the future. However, its return is not expected, given how far short the measure fell.

This is obviously a substantial setback for those who support stronger gun legislation, and for one of the president’s top agenda items.However, I think Greg’s long-term optimism from this morning is entirely appropriate. The bottom line about legislating in any system — let alone America’s convoluted Madisonian system — is that it’s really hard to do. Never mind the procedural hurdles, including the Senate supermajority that filibustering Republicans insist upon for all measures; never mind the need to either have unified party control of government (rare) or bipartisan support (hard to get). Just start at the beginning: Getting agreement among those who feel strongly about an issue is really difficult; getting agreement among those strong supporters and the willing-to-support that are usually needed to get anything done is even harder

That’s a good part of the story of why the Affordable Care Act passed in 2009 and 2010 while Bill Clinton’s initiative failed nearly two decades earlier. It just takes time, energy, and sustained effort to get things done in a democracy, especially in our system.

And so while today is clearly a crushing setback for proponents of tougher gun legislation, overall the effort has been a very solid step towards eventual passage. If, that is, the people who strongly supported today’s amendment keep working to reward Senators who supported them, to make life difficult for those who opposed them; and, most of all, to make it a must-support for future candidates.

My guess is that virtually no one, even among Democrats, pushed Max Baucus of Montana, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, or Mark Begich of Alaska — the Democrats who opposed the amendment today — to make expanded background checks in particular, or gun legislation in general, part of their core agenda during their last election cycles. If that changes this time, the results might change, too. Even more likely, if Senate candidates in open-seat primaries can be pushed to support consensus legislation, then they are very likely to support it once elected. And if they know they need that position in order to be nominated, they’ll take it. That doesn’t just mean national efforts; it means that local efforts, in each state and each House district, really can matter.

As Greg documented, this is the historical record on gun legislation. But it’s also the historical record on all legislation. It’s rare to have something pass the first time it’s tried (and while background checks are not brand new, this push for expansion mostly is). But whether it’s health care, campaign finance, or even the Patriot Act, most bills succeed after a long and painful process — even though final passage may come surprisingly quickly (as was the case with the Patriot Act).

It may sound trite to say it, but it really does come down to whether those who really care about it can sustain their effort over time, build support, and be ready with consensus legislation when the time comes. That wasn’t the case this time, as we found out this week. But as brutal as today was those who care about gun violence, the overall process can still be a step forward — if people keep working at it.