THE BEST decision the House of Representatives made last week was the final one to abandon its own abysmal handiwork and kill a gun control bill that had become a caricature of the legislative process. What had begun as a supposedly serious response to the school shootings in Littleton, Colo., and elsewhere, ended in a cave-in to the gun lobby. The capitulation produced the facade of a bill that would have left essentially intact -- in some ways worsened -- the deadly problem that it mainly finessed. More than a third of House Republicans finally joined almost all Democrats in voting to defeat the measure, most because they rightly thought that it had been twisted beyond the possibility of support, a few because they unaccountably thought that even in its totally denatured final form it was too strong.
In the face of the carnage that guns daily produce in the society, the failure to pass even a respectable gun bill, much less a strong one, is further evidence of the dysfunctional state of the House. It does little more than quarrel while barely pretending to legislate, as the parties jockey for shallow position in the next election. The narrow Republican majority exists in name only. The party's deep divisions and patchy leadership leave it no more able to impose its will on the Democrats than the other way around.
Guns are not the only issue on which it has floundered. The majority complained of a failure to use more force in Kosovo even as it shrank from the responsibilities that the use of such force would entail. The Republicans have been unable to agree on a credible budget; they flinch, as the president and Democrats likewise do, at the painful steps required to restore the finances of Social Security and Medicare; their leaders seek to stifle campaign finance reform even as they pretend to be offended by campaign finance abuses; etc. The only important bills they have passed thus far in the Congress have been pig-outs -- a supplemental appropriations bill and last week's aviation legislation -- even as they have continued to present themselves as the party of fiscal discipline. The record is unmarred by serious accomplishment.
The collapse of the gun bill was accompanied by passage of a separate juvenile justice bill that the leadership had split off as a fig leaf. Failure to pass the gun bill didn't mean the opponents were indifferent to the problem of violence on the part of the young: That was supposed to be the message. But the fig leaf is an atrocity of its own. Politicians who spend most of the year making speeches about the virtue of state and local government as opposed to the federal ogre would federalize all kinds of crimes, having mainly to do with guns, that have traditionally, and rightly, been the province of state and local legislators, law enforcement officials and courts.
In the process, they would clumsily strip away traditional protections for juvenile offenders that ought to be preserved, or left to state and local discretion. One effect of the legislation would be to burden federal courts,whose intrusion into the daily life of the country the legislators otherwise deplore. The bill is festooned with showy provisions no more constitutional than they would be useful. A proposal to criminalize the sale of violent material to minors was rightly defeated as a violation of the First Amendment, an intrusion on the prerogative of parents and probably not an effective policy in any case. But another proposal to permit the posting of the Ten Commandments in public buildings was adopted in clear defiance of a long-standing Supreme Court decision. What's wrong with a little political grandstanding when you likely can count on those reviled courts to bail you out?
The House now sends the defective fig leaf to conference with the Senate, which earlier passed its own mostly decent juvenile justice bill together with some tepid gun control proposals whose principal virtue is that they would do no harm while possibly a little good. The best that can be expected from such a conference on either gun control or juvenile justice is not much. In the face of major evidence of the harm that guns do -- evidence that convulsed the country -- the gun lobby has engineered a standoff that amounts to a major victory. That is the bottom line. It is reminiscent of the comparable victory that the tobacco lobby won in the last Congress. The public needs to decide how many more such victories not in the public interest it is prepared to countenance.