Wonkbook: Are guns, gays and immigration really ‘too much’?

April 19, 2013

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(AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
(AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

"Guns, gays and immigration — it’s too much," an unnamed Senate Democrat reportedly told the White House. "I can be with you on one or two of them, but not all three." Judging from President Obama's comments over the last two days, he didn't find this particular excuse persuasive.

But it does seem to be the rationalization du jour on the Hill. I heard it from pro-gun bill staffers who said, hopefully, that the breakaways were simply husbanding political capital for immigration reform. Paul Kane got it on the record from Sen. Joe Manchin, who says he heard it while looking to whip support for his legislation.

It's rare that the psychodrama of the Senate comes on such full display. But to state the obvious, this isn't just an explanation for a vote. It's a salve for a guilty conscience. This is not the sort of rationalization that would be leaking from the chamber if senators were confident they'd done the right thing. It's a rationalization for people who feel they did the wrong thing, and want to tell themselves it's the cost for doing the right thing later, on an even larger scale.

American politicians talk often about the concept of "political courage." This means, in general, voting for something your constituents, your allies, or powerful political interests won't like. It's a deeply self-serving idea. Every time it's uttered, it underscores the idea that the work of the legislator is, in some way, tough and dangerous, and that those who do an honest job of it are winning an epic struggle. It's how politicians prime the rest of us to nod our heads when we hear them say that voting with their conscience and their best judgment in three tough votes in a row is simply too much.

At a Wall Street Journal breakfast yesterday, Manchin put the idea of political courage in a more appropriate context. He recalled a trip to Afghanistan with a handful of other governors. "In Kabul, they let us meet with some of the provincial governors. One was a Taliban that had converted over to Karzai’s side. Some of them could speak pretty good English. And I’ll never forget this. We were talking to them one night at the embassy, and the one asked, out of the clear blue sky,  'what’s the greatest danger or the greatest price you pay being a governor?'"

"I thought about that, and I said, I guess either I could do something embarrassing and really embarrass my family, I could make a big mistake and hurt people unintentionally by a financial decision I made, or I could get defeated."

"No expression [on his face]. No expression at all. He said, Can I tell you what I face every day? They try to kill my children. They try to kill my family. They try to kill me and any of my associates. That’s what I face every day to be a governor."

Think about that the next time you hear an anonymous senator complain that three votes on broadly popular issues are "too much."

Wonkbook's Number of the Day: 844. That's the number of pages in the Senate's immigration reform bill. More below.

Wonkblog's Graphs of the Day: How the Senate has changed.

Wonkbook's Top 5 Stories: 1) on to immigration reform?; 2) gun control goes out with a whimper; 3) when should we listen to the economists?; 4) time for another Bowles-Simpson; and 5) with Moniz, what's next for energy policy?

1) Top story: On to immigration reform?

Gang of 8 unveils immigration reform. "As they unveiled their measure at a news conference, the senators mustered an impressive display of unity from business and labor, conservatives and liberals, and members of the various faith-based communities. They offered a bipartisan backdrop determined to say: not only is this immigration bill different from the one that failed in 2007, but it is very different from the bipartisan gun legislation...Group members and their aides insist the moment is right for overhauling the nation’s strained immigration system. The 2012 election, they say, in which President Obama won with 71 percent of the Hispanic vote, has created a climate in which Republicans are willing to make concessions that could lead to a broad immigration overhaul." Ashley Parker in The New York Times.

@jeffzeleny: Is the Senate immigration bill bipartisan? Grover Norquist standing next to Rich Trumka at press conference. So that's a yes.

How the immigration legislation process will begin. "The Senate Judiciary Committee will hold its first hearing on the legislation on Friday and another one on Monday, and the bill won’t go through the markup process until May, Schumer said, giving the public more time to read the more than 800-page piece of legislation...The gang plans to stick together as they move through the amendment process. Four of its eight members are on the Judiciary Committee, allowing them to work as a group to try to block hostile amendments." Ginger Gibson in Politico.

@robertcostaNRO: House R aides emailing... The gist: Senate, WH, press may want immigration reform, but House GOP is nervous, won't rush the process

Rubio's support for immigration reform puts him at odds with many conservatives. "The formal release of the bill this week kicks of months of public debate and Rubio, perhaps more than his seven colleagues, will be counted on to contain an expected conservative rebellion. He has toed a careful line through the months of negotiations that produced the bill." David Nakamura in The Washington Post.

...Such as Rep. Goodlatte. "The chairman of the House Judiciary Committee offered a chilly response to the far-reaching Senate immigration overhaul introduced this week, saying the proposal “repeats some of the same mistakes from the past.” “While the bill makes a good-faith effort to overhaul our broken immigration system, there are some flaws which could lead to the same problems in the future that we have today,” Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) said in a statement Thursday." Russell Berman in The Hill.

The failure of the gun bill may have helped immigration reform. "In the strange political calculus that is Washington, the death of gun-control legislation in the Senate this week could boost the prospects of the next big contentious issue on the docket: immigration reform...But senators and senior advisers in both parties said the gun legislation’s fate was always closely tied to an immigration reform bill — and even to same-sex marriage, another high-profile issue senators confronted when they returned from their spring recess two weeks ago." Paul Kane in The Washington Post.

STRASSEL: The immigration game. "The overriding question throughout this year's push to reform immigration has been what game the White House is playing. The media keep writing that President Obama sees immigration as his second-term legacy. That's what the White House keeps telling them, anyway, and who are they to doubt it? But congressional negotiators remain highly suspicious that the White House is more interested in using a failed immigration bill as a weapon against the GOP in 2014." Kimberley Strassel in The Wall Street Journal.

@bdomenech: Obama actually wanted to pass the gun bill. Immigration, not so much.

BROOKS: The second wave. "The main reason the gun issue won’t significantly harm Republicans is that it doesn’t play into the core debate that will shape the future of the party. The issue that does that is immigration. The near-term future of American politics will be determined by who wins the immigration debate. In the months since the election, a rift has opened between the Republicans you might call first-wave revolutionaries and those you might call second-wave revolutionaries." David Brooks in The New York Times.

Music recommendations interlude: Stealers Wheel, "Star," 1974.

Top op-eds

BROWNSTEIN: The gun lobby is in more trouble than you think. "The vote suggested that, after years in which gun-control has been sublimated as a political issue, support for expanding background checks and possibly further steps has again become a political norm in almost all of the blue-leaning states that underpin the recent Democratic advantage in the race for the White House." Ron Brownstein in the National Journal.

KRUGMAN: The Excel depression. "What the Reinhart-Rogoff affair shows is the extent to which austerity has been sold on false pretenses. For three years, the turn to austerity has been presented not as a choice but as a necessity. Economic research, austerity advocates insisted, showed that terrible things happen once debt exceeds 90 percent of G.D.P. But “economic research” showed no such thing; a couple of economists made that assertion, while many others disagreed. Policy makers abandoned the unemployed and turned to austerity because they wanted to, not because they had to." Paul Krugman in The New York Times.

ORNSTEIN AND MANN: Gridlock is not the way. "Yes, there are signs of progress in our political system. The universe of problem-solvers in the Senate has increased since the 2012 elections. But the broader pathologies in our politics remain. For all the problems that existed in previous decades, in a system designed not to act with dispatch, there was a strong political center, with responsible bipartisan leadership. The same cannot be said today." Norman J. Ornstein and Thomas E. Mann in The Washington Post.

DUNCAN: Pre-K offers road to middle class. "Studies consistently demonstrate that high-quality early education gives children the foundation they need to succeed. No study is perfect, but the cumulative evidence that high-quality preschool works is overwhelming...The most rigorous research that can be compared with what we are proposing — high-quality, full-day preschool — shows crucial benefits in high school graduation rates, employment and avoidance of criminal behavior." Arne Duncan in The Washington Post.

CROOK: To Keynes' dismay, macroeconomics is not yet like dentistry. "In macroeconomics, ideas are more powerful than facts. That’s a shame, but it isn’t a criticism. Even with the best will in the world (a condition, admittedly, that’s rarely satisfied) economists who debate fiscal and monetary policy couldn’t settle their disagreements by appealing to facts. Their discipline is too difficult, or too far from being a proper science, for that to happen. Ideas trump data time and again." Clive Crook in Bloomberg.

GOLDBERG: Is the Second Amendment the problem? "Why not ask Americans to consider amending the Constitution to spell out more clearly which citizens should have the right to own a gun, and which shouldn’t? Congress, as currently constituted, won’t adopt common-sense and popular reforms. So why not go all the way and talk about what really matters?" Jeffrey Goldberg in Bloomberg.

Q&A interlude: Wonkblog wants you to ask them questions.

2) Gun control goes out with a whimper

Two minor gun-control measures pass the Senate. "All that remained of a broad package of measures representing the most serious changes to the nation’s gun laws in 20 years were two amendments: one that would address mental health care, and another that would penalize states that divulge information about gun owners except under very specific circumstances like a criminal investigation. Both passed overwhelmingly, the only two gun-related measures to clear the Senate’s 60-vote threshold for passage. The vote on the amendments has no practical effect, since the underlying legislation has no immediate prospect of passing." Jeremy W. Peters in The New York Times.

The gun bill's tangled path to defeat. "[T]he roots of the defeat can be traced to a variety of other factors: timing, convoluted Senate rules that allow minority opponents great influence, and an ultimately failed alliance between Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, and Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma, which inadvertently helped the groundwork for the opposition." Jennifer Steinhauer in The New York Times.

Explainer: Modeling the Senate's vote on background checksNate Silver in The New York Times.

Democrats look to regroup on guns. "Democratic lawmakers and other advocates of tighter gun laws, stung by the Senate's rejection of new restrictions on firearms, on Thursday began sifting through the lessons of their setback and searching for ways to resurrect the push...Supporters of stricter gun laws said that pressure from outside the Capitol would be needed to change the political dynamics in Congress. Within the Senate, Sen. Joe Manchin (D., W.Va.), a leading architect of a bipartisan measure to expand background checks of gun purchasers, said he would continue searching for a way to change the bill—and gun owners' opinion of it—by tweaking its provisions." Kristina Peterson and Janet Cook in The Wall Street Journal.

Gun-control backers vow new energy. "Working with a committed White House, gun control proponents said they are mobilizing on two fronts. In the short term, they will attempt to shame opposing senators and stoke enough public outcry in their home states to force them to switch positions...[T]he White House and its allies also conceded that they see no easy path ahead after Wednesday’s defeat in the Senate, where 46 senators voted to block a compromise that would have extended background checks to all commercial gun sales." Philip Rucker in The Washington Post.

Push for gun laws not over, Pelosi says. "Pelosi said voters should now focus their efforts on the House version of the Toomey-Manchin amendment introduced by Reps. Peter King (R-N.Y.) and Mike Thompson (D-Calif.). The bill calls for expanding checks for commercial gun purchases, including those made at gun shows." Tarini Parti in Politico.

Harry Reid had a good reason to vote against the gun bill. "[T]he short explanation we give is that Reid voted no “for procedural reasons” or because a no vote “allows him to bring another cloture vote in the future.” But why does it do that? Why is the majority leader required to vote no if a bill is to be taken up again after a failed cloture vote?...Just change your vote at the last minute if it looks as though you’re going to lose, then move to reconsider. In theory, any supporter of the bill or nomination in question could do the same, but traditionally it’s been the majority leader." Dylan Matthews in The Washington Post.

Majority of Americans say guns bring safety in the home. "Lost amid the debate is the fact that for the first time a majority of Americans say having a gun in the household makes it a safer place to be, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll. By a wide 51 to 29 percent margin, more people say a gun in the house makes it safer rather than more dangerous. That’s a near complete reversal from a Gallup poll in 2000, when the public split 35 to 51 percent on whether guns make the home safer or more dangerous." Scott Clement and Peyton Craighill in The Washington Post.

Explainer: Two more graphs to see on the change in the SenateDylan Matthews in The Washington Post.

Another part of the failure: This is not your founding fathers' Senate. "The key to all this is that the undemocratic affect of the filibuster is layered on top of other undemocratic features of the Senate, like the small-state bias and the lengthy election cycle. George Washington probably never told Thomas Jefferson that the Senate is “the cooling saucer of democracy.” But even if he did, he was talking about the Senate at a time when the population difference between the smallest state and the largest state was a fifth of what it is now, when senators were appointed by state legislatures, and when the filibuster didn’t yet exist." Ezra Klein in The Washington Post.

Astronomical interlude: An abandoned space shuttle in Kazakhstan.

3) When should we listen to the economists?

Did underwater mortgages kill the economy? "How much has the phenomenon of people being underwater on their mortgages – rather than simply the decline in home prices – held back growth?...A recently revised paper by Atif Mian of Princeton, Amir Sufi of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and Kamalesh Rao of MasterCard Advisers suggests that underwater mortgages have played a significant role in holding back the recovery...Zip codes with fewer than 15 percent of homeowners only cut back only a little – spending only half a cent less for every dollar their home fell in value. But in Zip codes where more than 50 percent of homeowners were underwater, borrowers cut back five times as much – spending 2.5 cents less on car purchases for each dollar of reduced housing wealth." Zachary A. Goldfarb in The Washington Post.

Reinhart-Rogoff and the mysteries of macroeconomics. "The great challenge of macroeconomics is that it does not lend itself to experiments...As such, macroeconomists have to rely on natural experiments to understand how the economy really works, examining how different countries pursuing different policies at different times and in different circumstances get different results. But there’s a problem with relying on those comparisons: There are only so many countries and so many years to study." Neil Irwin in The Washington Post.

Wonktalk: Should we have less faith in economic studiesBrad Plumer and Neil Irwin in The Washington Post.

Explainer: When austerity is good, and when it's badDylan Matthews in The Washington Post.

American multinational corporations are hiring overseas, but not domestically. "American multinationals increased their worldwide employment by 1.5% to 34.5 million workers in 2011, according to new estimates released Thursday by the Commerce Department. The companies' employment in the U.S. rose by just 0.1% to 22.9 million workers in a year when total private employment in the U.S. rose 1.8%. Their overseas employment increased 4.4% to 11.7 million." Sudeep Reddy in The Wall Street Journal.

...But factory overtime is rising here. "Production and nonsupervisory employees in the U.S. manufacturing sector worked 41.8 hours a week on average in March, down slightly from February's 41.9 but still at a level rarely seen in recent times. Similar work hours were notched amid the economic boom of the 1990s and, prior to that, during the World War II-related production jump in 1945, according to the latest data from the Labor Department." Neil Shah in The Wall Street Journal.

...Yet unemployment data is mediocre. "Initial claims for state unemployment benefits rose 4,000 to a seasonally adjusted 352,000, the Labor Department said. The four-week moving average for new claims, a better measure of labor market trends, rose 2,750, to 361,250." Reuters.

Banks are reviving risky forms of debt. "The banks that created risky amalgams of mortgages and loans during the boom — the kind that went so wrong during the bust — are busily reviving the same types of investments that many thought were gone for good. Once more, arcane-sounding financial products like collateralized debt obligations are being minted on Wall Street." Nathaniel Popper in The New York Times.

IMF head warns against divergence in economic recovery. "Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, called for moving the world into a “full-speed recovery” at a news conference on Thursday at the opening of the fund’s annual spring meetings with its sister institution, the World Bank. Ms. Lagarde, echoing an earlier warning, expressed concern about what she called a “three-speed” global economy, with developing nations growing rapidly, the United States healing faster than most other advanced industrial countries, but Europe continuing to suffer from insufficient demand and incomplete government policies." Annie Lowrey in The New York Times.

Eighties interlude: This is what Gov. Chris Christie looked like then.

4) Time for another Bowles-Simpson

Bowles and Simpson are out with a new plan. "With another fight over the federal debt limit looming later this year as perhaps the final crucible for forging bipartisan consensus, the former chairmen of the famed Bowles-Simpson debt-reduction commission began briefing lawmakers Thursday on their latest plan for getting the nation’s runaway debt under control. In a major concession to political reality, Bowles-Simpson 2.0 seeks far less in new taxes than the original, and it seeks far more in savings from federal health programs for the elderly." Lori Montgomery in The Washington Post.

Poll: Do the rich pay enough in taxes? "Gallup asks respondents about whether they think members of different income groups are paying “their fair share in federal taxes, paying too much or paying too little.” In 1992 and 1993, 77 percent of Americans said that upper-income people paid too little. Today, the share is 61 percent." Catherine Rampell in The New York Times.

Computer science interlude: The human printer.

5) Moniz heading to confirmation, the next moves in energy policy

Moniz likely to be confirmed as Energy Secretary. "The Senate energy committee formally approved the nomination of Ernest J. Moniz to be energy secretary, the committee announced on Thursday.The 21-to-1 vote is an indication that Mr. Moniz, who served as an undersecretary in the Energy Department in the Clinton administration, will have no trouble being confirmed by the full Senate." Matthew L. Wald in The New York Times.

Decision on natural-gas exports coming "very soon." "A top Energy Department official said Thursday that the department is on the cusp of making decisions about an array of industry applications to export liquefied natural gas. “We are very soon going to be in a position to start making decisions based on the record, based on the documents supplied,” Deputy Energy Secretary Daniel Poneman said of proposals that would expand U.S. exports. “I wouldn’t think it would be months,” he told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee." Ben German in The Hill.

Rise in U.S. gas production fueling unexpected drop in emissions. "Energy-related emissions of carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas that is widely believed to contribute to global warming, have fallen 12% between 2005 and 2012 and are at their lowest level since 1994, according to a recent estimate by the Energy Information Administration, the statistical arm of the U.S. Energy Department." Russell Gold in The Wall Street Journal.

Sen. Murkowski says Obama energy plans need more drilling to work. "Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) warned the Obama administration Thursday that its proposal to steer federal oil-and-gas revenues into a green energy fund won’t fly unless it's paired with opening new areas to drilling. President Obama is pushing Congress to create an “Energy Security Trust,” which would steer $2 billion in revenues from offshore development into technologies that wean cars and trucks off of oil. Murkowski – the top Republican on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee – said Thursday that White House resistance to opening currently off-limits areas will sink a plan that could otherwise gain political traction." Ben German in The Hill.

Reading material interlude: The best sentences Wonkblog read today.

Wonkblog Roundup

Want to fight terrorism? Learn first aidHarold Pollack.

The Texas fertilizer plant explosion is horrific. But how common is thisBrad Plumer.

Want to cut health costs? Show doctors a price tagSarah Kliff.

Arkansas’ unusual Medicaid pledge: ‘The program is not an entitlement program.’ Sarah Kliff.

You can’t understand what’s happened to the Senate without these two graphsDylan Matthews.

Did underwater mortgages kill the economyZachary A. Goldfarb.

Wonktalk: Should we have less faith in economic studiesBrad Plumer, Neil Irwin.

What the Reinhart-Rogoff debacle tells us about the mysteries of macroeconomicsNeil Irwin.

This is not your founding fathers’ SenateEzra Klein.

Austerity may help growth during good times. But man, does it hurt during bad timesDylan Matthews.

Harry Reid had a good reason to vote against the gun bill. Dylan Matthews.

Ask the wonks! Sarah Kliff.

Et Cetera

The ECB should stop saying its hands are tiedEvan Soltas in Bloomberg.

26 million will be eligible for insurance subsidies under the Affordable Care ActElise Viebeck in The Hill.

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

Wonkbook is produced with help from Michelle Williams.

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