Wonkbook: Do background checks have a chance?

April 15, 2013

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Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., answers questions following a Republican strategy session on Capitol Hill on April 9. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Sen. Mitch McConnell isn't feeling those good bipartisan vibes. According to Politico's John Bresnahan and Jake Sherman, the Senate Minority Leader won't talk fiscal issues if Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is also allowed in the room. He's also helping rally opposition to the gun control bill, and is considered an impediment on immigration reform, too.

And McConnell isn't the only speed bump on Bipartisan Road. Most all the cross-aisle collaboration work that's dominating A1 lately is happening in the Senate. No one knows what, if anything, happens when it gets to the House.

On all their legislative priorities, Democrats have adopted strategies meant to bypass the Republican leadership as much as possible. Immigration reform and gun control have both been turned over to ad hoc groups of sympathetic senators. President Obama is holding dinners and lunches meant to peel off sympathetic Republican senators. The Democrats believe that rank-and-file Republican senators aren't as partisan as the leadership, and thus far, they've been proven right. But that's unlikely to matter much if, in the end, Boehner and McConnell decide to kill their bills.

And that's the question behind all these projects: Do Boehner and McConnell want to stop immigration reform and gun control and perhaps a budget deal from becoming law? Or do they just want to be able to say they voted against any such laws?

Wonkbook's Number of the Day: 9.14 billion. Fittingly for April 15 -- tax day -- that's the number of hours a year Americans spend, in aggregate, on government paperwork. Roughly three-fourths of that is on IRS documents. More below.

Wonkblog's Graph of the Day: Do progressive taxes make us happier?

Wonkbook's Top 5 Stories: 1) background checks at the heart of gun control; 2) immigration reform hopes rest on GOP shift; 3) EPA to delay CO2 rules; 4) today is April 15, so file your taxes!; and 5) where bipartisanship goes to die.

1) Top story: Do background checks have a chance?

Centerpiece of gun bill remains in doubt. "The Senate could vote as early as Tuesday on expanded background checks for gun buyers — a centerpiece of broad gun legislation — but leading lawmakers said Sunday that approval of the measure remained uncertain...Subsequent amendments, dealing with mental health, a ban on assault weapons and other issues, are expected in the days ahead before a vote on the overall legislation, which could take weeks." Jennifer Steinhauer in The New York Times.

...But the Manchin-Toomey background check deal has been endorsed by a gun-rights group. "The endorsement by the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms — which calls itself the second-largest gun rights organization in the country, behind the NRA, claiming 650,000 members and supporters — is one of several moves over the past few days that have provided a boost to the hopes of proponents of background checks." Tom Hamburger and Ed O'Keefe in The Washington Post.

...And by Sen. Collins. "Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said she will support a proposal to expand background checks for commercial gun sales, according to a report Saturday...Collins joins Republican Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois in supporting the measure, which would require background checks for online and gun-show gun sales." Elizabeth Titus in Politico.

How party divisions complicate gun control. "[S]ome Democrats who are facing re-election next year in conservative states have already said they will not vote for the background check measure offered by Senators Patrick J. Toomey, Republican of Pennsylvania, and Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia, forcing Democrats to look desperately across the aisle to fill the gaps." Jennifer Steinhauer and Jonathan Weisman in The New York Times.

DIONNE: Newtown's call to reason. "Because the accounts from the Sandy Hook families have been so moving and so wrenching, it is common to say that a gun bill is being carried along 'on a wave of emotion.' There is nothing wrong with honest emotion, but the implication is that we are acting on guns in a way we would not act if our judgments were based on pure reason or a careful look at the evidence." E.J. Dionne in The Washington Post.

April 15 interlude: Play the "Tax Evaders" video game. (Hat tip: Jared Bernstein.)

Top op-eds

SUNSTEIN: Go simple. "As part of President Obama’s continuing effort to streamline regulatory requirements, we took a series of quiet but aggressive steps to cut pointless red tape. In the last decade, the estimated paperwork burden peaked between 2007 and 2009, and while it remains far too high, we were able to chip away at it...For all the talk about tax simplification, Congress has paid disappointingly little attention to paperwork burdens. But Democrats and Republicans should be able to agree that nine billion hours are far too many. Let’s do something about it." Cass R. Sunstein in The New York Times.

COCHRANE: An alternative maximum tax. "With Monday's deadline for filing tax returns looming, let's start a national conversation: How much is the most anyone should have to pay? When do taxes indisputably start to harm the economy and produce less revenue—when government takes 50% of people's income? 60%? 70%?" John H. Cochrane in The Wall Street Journal.

SUMMERS: When gridlock is good. "In American history, division and slow change has been the norm rather than the exception. While often frustrating, this has not always been a bad thing...The great mistake of the gridlock theorists is to suppose that progress comes from legislation, and that more legislation consistently represents more progress. While people think the nation is gripped by gridlock, consider what has happened in the past five years: Washington moved faster to contain a systemic financial crisis than any country facing such an episode has done in the past generation." Lawrence Summers in The Washington Post.

KLEIN: The Obama budget and the 'coalition of the ascendant'. "Axelrod isn’t suggesting that Obama’s political strategists locked themselves in a conference room and emerged with a cynical budget that shafted the old while ensuring universal pre-K and health care for the young. But even if Axelrod isn’t offering a full endorsement of Brownstein’s theory, it’s notable that he didn’t run screaming from it. The political logic of Obama’s agenda is clear, even if it’s not the driving force.Ezra Klein in The Washington Post.

DOUTHAT: Balance and bias. "The core weakness of the mainstream media, in this sense, is less liberalism than parochialism. The same habits of mind that make bipartisanthink seem like the height of wisdom also make it easy to condescend to causes and groups that seem disreputable and to underplay stories that might vindicate them." Ross Douthat in The New York Times.

LIVINGSTON: The road to fairer corporate taxation. "[T]he ostensible tax rate on corporate income is no higher than 35 percent — and the corporate-tax share of federal revenue has fallen to about 9 percent...[T]here’s no downside to replacing payroll taxes with increased taxes on corporate profits, wherever they’re made or held. By doing so, we make the tax code more progressive, and mobilize capital that is otherwise inert." James Livingston in The New York Times.

KRUGMAN: The anti-social network. "The practical misconception here — and it’s a big one — is the notion that we live in an era of wildly irresponsible money printing, with runaway inflation just around the corner...The philosophical misconception, however, seems to me to be even bigger. Goldbugs and bitbugs alike seem to long for a pristine monetary standard, untouched by human frailty. But that’s an impossible dream." Paul Krugman in The New York Times.

KONCZAL: Will Dodd-Frank fix mortgage servicing? "It’s critically important that we understand what went wrong in the financial market institutions that manage the mortgage market, both during the bubble and the crash. One of those institutions is the mortgage “servicing” industry, which is responsible for collecting payments and handling problems for securitized mortgages. It is at the center for those seeking justice for past wrongdoing, and crucial for writing new regulations to prevent trouble in the future. But a new obstacle to this has arrived on the scene: federal regulators blocking the release of records they have collected documenting illegal abuses." Mike Konczal in The Washington Post.

STIGLITZ: The inequality in our tax code. "[I]n recent decades, the burden for paying that price has been distributed in increasingly unfair ways...The richest 400 individual taxpayers, with an average income of more than $200 million, pay less than 20 percent of their income in taxes — far lower than mere millionaires, who pay about 25 percent of their income in taxes, and about the same as those earning a mere $200,000 to $500,000." Joseph Stiglitz in The New York Times.

Hilarous interlude: A training camp for elite knitters.

2) Can the GOP make the move on immigration?

With endorsement of immigration plan, Rubio makes first major policy gambit of his career. "[I]n many ways, the senators’ negotiations, behind the scenes and in public, have hinged on a party of one. Rubio, the tea-party favorite whose parents emigrated from Cuba, has been considered the most crucial player all along. Although he has seemed to waver at times, his full-throated endorsement of the bill Sunday, in a marathon round of seven television interviews, put at ease a group of colleagues that has been working hard to ensure he stays the course." David Nakamura in The Washington Post.

The GOP is moving on immigration. Are its voters? "From the toplines, the story seems to be one of stable attitudes from November 2012 to March 2013. But those numbers hide an important fact: not everyone has responded to the changing GOP stance in quite the same way. It turns out to be well-educated Republicans whose attitudes have shifted most dramatically." Dan Hopkins in The Washington Post.

Explainer: 5 senators to watch in the immigration debateChris Cillizza in The Washington Post.

Meet Raul Labrador, a Republican at the heart of immigration reform. "His support for comprehensive reform could prove critical in convincing sceptical Republicans in the House, especially in the Tea Party faction, to vote in favour of the overhaul. And that could clinch it...Mr Labrador is promoting a “free market” solution under which “employers and employees negotiate among themselves and determine what the wages are going to be, what’s needed”." Anna Fifield in The Financial Times.

Where the business community fits in on immigration. "The business community has long supported the idea of immigration reform — particularly the high-tech sector and the construction industry, which badly need the workers. What they don’t support are some of the specifics leaking out on a new immigration reform proposal expected Tuesday from the Gang of Eight...Several tech lobbyists said they think the Senate Gang of Eight’s plan won’t increase the number of H-1B visas by nearly enough. Final details of the plan haven’t been made public, yet." Anna Palmer in Politico.

Medieval interlude: A Tumblr of illuminated manuscript images.

3) EPA to delay CO2 rules

EPA to delay rule limiting carbon emissions at new power plants. "The Environmental Protection Agency said Friday that it would delay issuance of a new rule limiting emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from new power plants after the electric power industry objected on legal and technical grounds...Agency officials said it would be rewritten to address the concerns raised by the industry, which said that strict new carbon standards could not be met using existing technology." John M. Broder in The New York Times.

Interview: Chris Nelder, on why "peak oil" isn't deadBrad Plumer in The Washington Post.

New solar process gets more from natural gas. "The Energy Department is preparing to test a new way for solar power to make electricity: using the sun’s heat to increase the energy content of natural gas...Researchers at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Wash., hope by this summer to carry out the test, which entails a process that could cut the amount of natural gas used — and the greenhouse gasses emitted — by 20 percent." Matthew L. Wald in The New York Times.

Fashion interlude: Harper's Bazaar photographed women floating through bubbles in Paris in 1963

4) April 15, and the talk of tax reform

How tax reform can win. "People have to believe, as is more often the case in other advanced democracies, that their money will be efficiently spent on services they want and need, and that the private sector either won’t provide (public goods, infrastructure, pollution abatement, innovative investments) or will do so less efficiently and affordably (retirement security, public education).  And for people to effectively and lastingly believe it, it has to be true." Jared Bernstein on his blog.

Economy rewarding big companies, penalizing small ones. "[W]hile the outlook among small-business owners remains stuck near recession levels, Wall Street is again expecting the largest companies to report strong results when they announce first-quarter earnings in the coming weeks. That is especially true for the very biggest corporations. While analysts estimate profits for the 100 largest companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index to rise 6.6 percent this quarter, earnings for the bottom 100 are expected to fall by 1.6 percent. Of all the profits earned by the companies that make up the S.& P. 500, 22 percent will come from the 10 largest companies, up from 18 percent in 2010." Nelson D. Schwartz in The New York Times.

Explainer: Key economic data in the coming weekAmrita Jayakumar in The Washington Post.

World domination interlude: The countries Britain hasn't once invaded.

5) Where bipartisanship goes to die

Obama budget revives benefits as divisive issue. "Whether or not Republicans ever agree to a budget deal with President Obama, one thing seems certain: now that he has officially put Social Security and Medicare benefits on the negotiating table, opponents on his party’s left will make that an issue for Democrats in the midterm elections next year — and perhaps in the 2016 presidential contest...Democrats who back Mr. Obama’s budget proposals to trim future benefits as part of a long-term deficit-reduction compromise could be attacked from the left and the right." Jackie Calmes in The New York Times.

And Mitch McConnell is in no mood for bipartisanship. "The Senate minority leader has signaled privately that he has no interest in sitting in the same room as Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to discuss a possible “grand bargain” on budget and tax issues, Senate insiders tell POLITICO. McConnell is fine with talking to Obama — just talking at this point — but he doesn’t want Reid there when it happens. Such is life in Congress, where hope of bipartisanship is giving way to the same old toxic relations...Bad blood remains between party leaders and the national partisan realities haven’t changed." John Bresnahan and Jake Sherman in Politico.

Reading material interlude: The best sentences Wonkblog read today.

Wonkblog Roundup

Will N.Y.C.'s large soda ban backfireSarah Kliff.

Interview: Chris Nelder on peak oilBrad Plumer.

The GOP is moving on immigration. Are its votersDan Hopkins.

Obama’s budget and the ‘coalition of the ascendant.' Ezra Klein.

Can Dodd-Frank fix mortgage servicing if we don’t know what went wrongMike Konczal.

Et Cetera

Obama sits down with insurers to talk about Affordable Care ActJackie Calmes in The New York Times.

Debate: How should we deal with the "marriage penalty" in the tax codeThe New York Times.

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

Wonkbook is produced with help from Michelle Williams.

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