Wonkbook: Gun control shows how Washington really works

April 9, 2013

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In this January file photo Senate Judiciary Committee member Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., talks about gun legislation during the committee's hearing. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)
In this January file photo Senate Judiciary Committee member Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., talks about gun legislation during the committee's hearing. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

“If our democracy's working the way it’s supposed to," President Obama said in West Hartford, CT, "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."

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?

A comforting explanation for this is that public opinion isn't failing so much as it's simply uninformed, and thus unable to pressure Congress. Pollster Joel Benenson, alongside Katie Connolly, wrote as much in Saturday's New York Times:

"Of the 50 percent of people who prefer enforcement over new laws — over half of whom are gun owners — 48 percent told us that federal laws prohibit the purchase of a weapon privately or at a gun show without a background check, while 10 percent simply admitted not knowing the rules. 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 just under half of those who want better enforcement don’t know that military-style assault weapons are, in fact, legal."

But this is just a way of restating the same problem: If public opinion remains this uninformed despite overwhelming media coverage of the issue, the president's aggressive use of the bully pulpit, and the focusing power of a national tragedy, then that suggests public opinion can't effectively be leveraged even in extremely favorable circumstances. These results don't explain the fluke status of gun control. They explain why majority support is a reliably weak predictor of congressional action.

Little of this should be a surprise to anyone tuned into politics in recent years. Gun control is hardly the first issue where public opinion, the bully pulpit, and external forcing mechanisms failed to move Congress. A look at what's passed and what's failed since 2009 would show little correlation with what was popular and what wasn't. For instance: The Affordable Care Act, despite sagging in the polls, made it through Congress. The public option, one of the most popular parts of the bill, didn't. Income tax increases on the wealthy, despite being overwhelmingly popular, were blocked until 2013. Banks bailouts, despite being political poison, passed. Short-term Medicare and Social Security cuts, despite being wildly unpopular and opposed by both parties during the last election, are now central to the budget discussion, and will be part of any grand bargain that passes.

Congress, today, is driven more by intense minorities than checked-out majorities. It is probably rational for a Senate Republican to believe he has more to fear from the conservative activists who would be furious that he went along with the president's gun-control agenda than from the broad mass of the public who would be vaguely pleased, but mostly unaware, and in either case, not all that interested. It is time for those of us who cover Washington to stop being surprised that this is how it works. It's been working like this for years now.

Wonkbook's Number of the Day: 11 percent. That's the sequester's cut to unemployment benefits. Also cut, by 5 percent, are the funds to distribute the benefits. More on the budget below.

Wonkblog's Graph of the Day: Real per-capita federal spending shrunk faster in 2012 than in any year since 1954.

Wonkbook's Top 5 Stories: 1) can gun control legislation be rescued; 2) Baucus wants to do tax reform by this August; 3) Rep. Cantor pitches Obamacare reforms without repeal; 4) greenhouse gas regulation is on its way; and 5) the health and policy of the financial sector.

1) Top story: Who can save gun control? Obama? Toomey?

In CT, Obama makes the final pitch for gun control. "The call for stricter gun laws — his most forceful yet — came in a campaign-style event in front of several thousand people packed into the University of Hartford’s basketball arena...Obama’s visit to Connecticut comes at the start of a critical week on Capitol Hill that could determine the fate of his sweeping gun-control agenda, with signs that senators may be nearing a deal to expand background-check requirements but with other proposals in serious jeopardy." Philip Rucker in The Washington Post.

Read: A transcript of President Obama's speech as delivered.

Watch: Video of President Obama's speechThe New York Times.

Obama's speech marks a last-ditch effort to save gun control in  Congress. "Even as Obama spoke, his hopes for a massive overhaul of gun control laws appeared to be falling to the side, with Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) promising to block legislation that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) wants to bring to the Senate floor. McConnell and Republicans oppose the centerpiece of Reid’s legislation and Obama’s gun control agenda: an expansion of background checks, which Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), the Senate Democrats’ political guru, called the “sweet spot” of any gun control bill." Amie Parnes and Alexander Bolton in The Hill.

@markknoller: Pres Obama's 28 minute speech today in Hartford was his 13th on gun violence since the shootings in Newtown December 14th.

...But the polls are turning against gun control. "A new CNN/ORC International poll found President Obama's overall approval rating has ticked up to 51 percent but ratings have fallen on his handling of the key issues on his agenda: immigration, guns, and the deficit...On guns, 45 percent approve and 52 percent disapprove, the poll found. In January, 46 percent approved and 49 percent disapproved." Donovan Slack in Politico.

@markknoller: The Administration tries to keep up gun violence pressure on Congress tomorrow. VP Biden & AG Holder address law enforcement supporters.

Sen. McConnell will join gun-control filibuster. "Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said he would join a group of Senate Republicans threatening a filibuster to oppose a cloture vote if Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid moves a gun bill to the floor this week...McConnell joins a group of 13 senators who have already vowed to block any gun legislation." Ginger Gibson in Politico.

@jonathanweisman: McConnell support for gun filibuster effectively makes vote to take up gun bill a Republican unity vote. And Senate Repubs are good @ unity

Why is this week so critical? "Congress returns to Washington on Monday with two issues reaching critical stages – gun safety legislation in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting and a comprehensive overhaul of the nation’s immigration system. Both issues face a hard road, and action could slip into next week. But negotiations, which for two weeks have largely been between staff members, will intensify as lawmakers return from their spring break. In both cases, breakthroughs are possible by midweek." Jonathan Weisman and Jennifer Steinhauer in The New York Times.

Is Sen. Toomey the unlikely savior of gun control? "So, why is Toomey involved in talks on background checks? Because, at his core, Toomey is not a pure ideologue but rather a political survivor. Prior to running against Specter in 2004, Toomey spent three terms representing a swing-ish House seat in northeastern Pennsylvania. And, while he clearly touted his conservative bona fides when he ran against Specter in 2004, he cast himself much more as a pragmatic pol during his 2010 win." Chris Cillizza and Sean Sullivan in The Washington Post.

...What do you need to know about Toomey? "Messrs. Toomey and Manchin are working on expanding background checks to unlicensed sellers at gun shows and online, but not to other private sales, according to someone familiar with the negotiations. Currently, only federally licensed dealers must perform background checks and maintain a record of the sale." Kristina Peterson in The Wall Street Journal.

@mattyglesias: Bipartisan compromise: Abandon gun regulation efforts, zero out defense spending since the militia will take care of it.

...And why Republicans shouldn't filibuster the gun bill. "Politically speaking, such a move could have short-term benefits for Republicans but also creates real risks for further damage to the party’s already tarnished brand in the long(er) term...If Republicans kill gun control measures that are widely popular via the filibuster they run the very real risk of alienating many of the right-leaning independents and centrists that they badly need to win back in advance of the 2016 presidential election." Chris Cillizza in The Washington Post.

Music recommendations interlude: Billy Joel, "Vienna."

Top op-eds

BAUCUS AND CAMP: We can do tax reform. "We've agreed that tax reform should result in a system that is as progressive as the current one. Tax reform will close special-interest loopholes to help lower rates. We will ensure that low-income and middle-income Americans will pay no more taxes than they do under current law." Max Baucus and Dave Camp in The Wall Street Journal.

SOLTAS: The myth of America's infrastructure crisis. "There's more than a touch of Chicken Little in common arguments for more infrastructure spending. "The bridges are falling, the bridges are falling!" Are American bridges actually falling, though? Is the U.S. underinvested in infrastructure? Maybe it's going too far to say, "The U.S. is doing just fine, thank you very much." The nation would benefit from reordering its infrastructure priorities...But the idea that the U.S. has an infrastructure crisis? No. A broad, permanent increase in spending is unwarranted." Evan Soltas in Bloomberg.

LANE: How Germany reformed its social safety net. "What really propelled Germany’s economy to new heights was the package of market-oriented reforms launched by Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder 10 years ago. Schroeder acknowledged that Germany’s safety net had become a bit of a hammock. He restructured and reduced unemployment and welfare benefits while giving employers more freedom to hire and fire." Charles Lane in The Washington Post.

STEPP AND TREMBATH: Climate policy should target coal, not Keystone. "Coal is the essential “dirty” fossil fuel. Coal-fired power plants emit deadly particulates as well as smog-producing nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide that harm human health. They also constitute one of the largest sources of greenhouse gases. Moving away from coal would not only slow climate change, it would also protect the health of countless Americans." Matthew Stepp and Alex Trembath in Bloomberg.

ALLEN AND COLLINS: The human brain as the final frontier. "In science there are moments when prior discoveries, advances in technology, and visionary leadership align to create the opportunity for a great leap...The timing is perfect now for a federally coordinated effort to unlock the secrets of the brain, in line with President Obama's call this month for an ambitious project to map the most complex organ in the known universe." Paul G. Allen and Francis S. Collins in The Wall Street Journal.

Aggressive animal interlude: Deer. You don't want to fight one.

2) Baucus wants to do tax reform by August

Sen. Baucus says it's tax reform time. "Last month, Sen. Max Baucus summoned members of the Senate Finance Committee to a closed-door meeting to discuss the first full-scale rewrite of the 5,600-page U.S. tax code in more than 25 years...They found a detailed schedule of 10 more meetings, where committee staff members will present option papers for achieving such popular goals as simpler filing rules...[T]he committee should aim to produce a tax-reform plan by August, when Congress will once again need a face-saving deal to justify raising the legal limit on the $16.8 trillion in federal debt." Lori Montgomery in The Washington Post.

Explainer: Why do people hate deficits? And do those reasons make senseDylan Matthews in The Washington Post.

Obama looks to shield poorest in Social Security reform proposal. "President Barack Obama's budget on Wednesday will propose slowing the growth of Social Security and other benefits, but include measures to shield a broad range of Americans from the plan's full impact, including very old recipients as well as low-income seniors and veterans...On Monday, a person familiar with the situation said very-low-income seniors and veterans also would be shielded, but didn't say how. Other protections also would be included, the person said." John D. McKinnon in The Wall Street Journal.

...But liberals are warning Democrats about too much budgetary compromise. "The Progressive Change Campaign Committee, Democracy for America, and MoveOn.org have released sharply worded statements putting Democrats on notice that support for President Barack Obama’s budget – which proposes cuts to Medicare and Social Security – would be tantamount to betrayal."  Alex Isenstadt in Politico.

Sequestration = an 11 percent cut in unemployment benefits. "The fiscal battle in Washington that led to $85 billion in spending cuts across the federal government has not spared unemployment benefits for almost two million out-of-work Americans, who are being hit by an 11 percent reduction in payments this fiscal year...The sequester also cuts by 5 percent the federal grants to the states and the District of Columbia to administer the unemployment insurance program.That’s an estimated $158 million in fiscal year 2013. The estimated cuts range here too, from about $23.6 million in California to around $300,000 in South Dakota." Lisa Rein in The Washington Post.

And Director of National Intelligence James Clapper says that more cuts could be a big problem for national security. "What worries him now, as director of national intelligence, is a rerun of federal budget cuts that he said hurt intelligence operations in the 1990s. Today’s cutbacks, known as sequestration, will harm the nation in ways that might not be known until it is too late, he said. Employee furloughs are under consideration, though none has been announced." Joe Davidson in The Washington Post.

This is a real headline interlude: Man buys toy poodles, discovers they’re actually ferrets on steroids.

3) Cantor pitches Obamacare reforms without a repeal

Here's a first: GOP pursuing reform of Obamacare without 'repeal.' "The House GOP's spring agenda includes shoring up ObamaCare's high-risk insurance pools and strengthening federally funded research on pediatric diseases. Republican Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) unveiled those priorities in a memo to colleagues on Friday. He specifically defended the forthcoming bill on ObamaCare, saying that one move to strengthen the law does not eliminate the GOP's goal of repealing it. The bill Cantor referred to will reopen enrollment in a temporary insurance plan for people with pre-existing conditions that was enacted as part of healthcare reform." Elise Viebeck in The Hill.

Tomorrow, Marilyn Tavenner faces her confirmation hearing to head up Medicare. "Marilyn Tavenner is headed to Capitol Hill tomorrow for a hearing on her nomination to lead the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). She's certain to face tough questions, especially from Republican senators, but just the fact that she's receiving a hearing at all raises the prospect of a major healthcare nominee receiving bipartisan support in the Senate." Sam Baker and Elise Viebeck in The Hill.

Questions: Here are four senators should ask Tavenner in her hearingSarah Kliff in The Washington Post.

Administration pushes towards electronic medical records. "The Obama administration is moving to ease the national transition from paper to electronic health records through a pair of proposed rules to be published this week. The rules, to hit Tuesday’s Federal Register, would update and extend existing regulations surrounding the sharing of patient electronic records...The two rules – one put forth by the Department of Heath and Human Services’ inspector general and the other crafted by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services – seek to expand the safe harbor exceptions, and extend their sunset dates." Ben Goad in The Hill.

In Obamacare, online insurance brokers see potential windfall. "The online brokers want millions of new insurance customers to be able to use those subsidies to buy health coverage through their Web sites, rather than shop exclusively on the new exchanges being set up by states and the federal government. For that to happen, states will have to agree to partner with these privately-run firms. While a handful of states are considering the option, none has yet adopted it. Online insurance brokers say that they have the expertise to make the Affordable Care Act more successful by increasing enrollment in health insurance plans." Sarah Kliff in The Washington Post.

Tumblr interlude: Reasons my son is crying, a new Tumblr to add to Wonkbook's vast collection.

4) Greenhouse gas regulations are coming

Are greenhouse gas regs coming soon? "The White House will enact greenhouse gas emission rules for power plants in the “not-too-distant future,” Heather Zichal, President Obama’s top climate adviser, said Monday...The White House has not said whether similar standards for existing plants are being considered, though Obama said in his State of the Union speech that he would use executive authority to address emissions if Congress fails to do so legislatively." Zack Colman in The Hill.

Primary source: National Climate Assessment and Development Advisory Committee draft report released.

Study: The coal industry is in big trouble. "As much as 65 percent of the U.S. coal fleet could find itself under threat in the years ahead, thanks to cheap natural gas and stricter air-pollution regulations. That’s according to a new peer-reviewed study by three researchers at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment, who take a detailed look at the costs of operating both coal-fired power plants and natural-gas plants around the United States. Their conclusion? Coal power is far more economically vulnerable than most analysts have realized to date." Brad Plumer in The Washington Post.

More people concerned about global warming. "Americans’ fear of global warming is on the rise, though they still aren’t as concerned as they were before the 2008 financial collapse. A new Gallup poll shows 58 percent of Americans are concerned a great deal or a fair amount about global warming. That’s up from 51 percent in 2011 but down from 66 percent in 2008 and the record high of 72 percent in 2000." Aaron Blake in The Washington Post.

XKCD interlude: Subways of North America, a map.

5) The health and policy of the financial sector

Stress test finds healthier banks. "Mr. Bernanke, in a speech, noted that this year’s tests showed that 18 of the biggest banks had collectively doubled the cushions they hold against losses since the first tests were run in 2009. He said the tests were providing vital information to regulators...They showed that all but one of the 18 banks were better prepared to withstand a severe American recession and an upheaval in financial markets. The tests are used to determine whether the banks can increase dividends or repurchase shares." The Associated Press.

Mary Jo White confirmed as SEC chief. "Without fanfare, the Senate approved White by unanimous consent, signaling that because she had strong bipartisan support, an official vote count was not necessary. White must now sign presidential appointment papers and get officially sworn in before she can take the reins from the current SEC chief, Elisse B. Walter...White, a former federal prosecutor who has spent the past decade as a white-collar attorney in New York, dazzled lawmakers from both parties with her credentials." Dina ElBoghdady in The Washington Post.

Why no hiring boom from the housing boom? "Jed Kolko, chief economist of Trulia, points out that the total of construction workers in the United States is actually still quite high by historical standards. Back in the early 2000s, before the housing bubble took off, the number of construction jobs per housing unit under construction tended to hover around 2.6. It’s at about 3.7 today." Brad Plumer in The Washington Post.

Reading material interlude: The best sentences Wonkblog read today.

Wonkblog Roundup

A look back at Margaret Thatcher's economic recordDylan Matthews.

Wonktalk: Dissecting Margaret Thatcher's economic policiesDylan Matthews and Brad Plumer.

Here’s why the housing recovery hasn’t led to a hiring boomBrad Plumer.

In Obamacare, online insurance brokers see potential windfallSarah Kliff.

Why Japan is the most interesting story in global economics right nowNeil Irwin.

Why do people hate deficitsDylan Matthews.

Here are four questions senators should ask Obama’s Medicare nominee. Sarah Kliff.

This study will make you feel terrible about not calling your grandparentsEzra Klein.

Et Cetera

And then there were 3, as Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) endorses gay marriageAaron Blake in The Washington Post.

Study links race, voting wait timeRachel Weiner in The Washington Post.

The interest rate on many student loans is set to double, rising from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percentTamar Lewin in The New York Times.

Explainer: 5 things to watch in the immigration debateCarrie Budoff Brown and Jake Sherman in Politico.

Conservatives pitch immigration reform as fiscally beneficialJim Tankersley in The Washington Post.

Gov. Jindal's plan to end income tax is deadPatrick O'Connor and Cameron McWhirter in The Wall Street Journal.

In Europe, Treas. Sec. Lew encourages Europe to pursue growth, not austerity. Zachary A. Goldfarb in The Washington Post.

Most vulnerable governors, 2014 editionMicah Cohen in The New York Times.

Got tips, additions, or comments? E-mail me.

Wonkbook is produced with help from Michelle Williams.

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Brad Plumer · April 8, 2013