The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

House GOP rushes to deliver for its Fox News-viewer constituency

House members applaud Republican Matt Gaetz (Fla.) after he voted present during the 14th round of voting for speaker at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. (Elizabeth Frantz for The Washington Post)

Last week’s drama over the election of a new speaker of the House has become this week’s drama centered on an introductory slate of proposals meant to govern the next two years in the chamber. The package of rules proposed by the Republican majority includes both delineations of how the House will function and a number of bills — ones considered so important that they are introduced as one of the House’s first orders of business.

And, as might be expected, they are centered on issues and themes important largely in the conservative media world.

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It’s not that this doesn’t make sense, of course. There are very few bills that a House Republican majority will support that could be expected to be endorsed by Senate Democrats and signed into law by President Biden. The House, long a bastion of performative attention-getting by members on both sides of the aisle, comes into 2023 understanding the limits of what it might be able to do.

But it also enters 2023 after spending a week seeing how many wrenches of various sizes the Republican caucus’s right-most fringe is willing to throw into the works. So, among the seven bills mentioned in the initial rules package are a number that are centered on right-wing rhetoric, including incorrect or misleading arguments.

Take the proposed bill that would “rescind certain balances made available to the Internal Revenue Service.” That’s a reference to the right’s insistence that an expansion of the IRS workforce approved last year is meant to target ordinary taxpayers. It’s low-hanging political fruit. Unlike other law enforcement agencies, everyone might feel concerned about an increase in the number of tax agents poking around submitted returns. But, as has been noted repeatedly, the Republican rhetoric on the issue regularly misstates what the workforce expansion would do. And that’s not even including some of the more breathless rhetoric, suggesting that Biden wants a new IRS army to target innocent, hapless parents.

This is not really an exaggeration.

If you’re curious how specific this is to right-wing rhetoric, allow me to offer some data. Over the past year, there have been at least 850 mentions of IRS agents on Fox News. On CNN and MSNBC, the combined total is about 200.

Then there’s the bill prohibiting the sale of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to China. (The reserve was mentioned at least 675 times on Fox News in the past year, fewer than 400 on the other leading cable news channels combined.) The Biden administration began selling the oil last year as oil prices peaked, refilling the reserve at the end of the year after prices collapsed. The move netted a $4 billion profit. But the sales were cast as Biden selling a strategic resource to our geopolitical opponents, and that’s the narrative that stuck on the right.

There are also proposals involving other hot-button issues, such as banning taxpayer funding of abortion procedures. Perhaps the most interesting proposal among the seven included in the rules package, though, is one involving the FBI’s instant background-check system for firearm sales.

That system, called NICS (National Instant Criminal Background Check System), is the one that’s activated when someone wants to buy a gun from a dealer or, in some states, when a firearm permit is renewed. In 2022, there were about 31.6 million checks performed, more than 86,000 a day. The bill proposed by House Republicans would add a stipulation to those checks: If the person seeking to buy the firearm is in the country illegally, the gun dealer would have to inform federal authorities.

You can see the appeal here. It entwines discussions of gun ownership (and, by extension, gun violence) with legal immigration, allowing Republicans to cast any opposition as reflecting Democratic indifference to potential criminal activity by immigrants in the country illegally. In fact, when similar legislation has been introduced in the past, that’s precisely the rhetoric that ensued.

That said, the right is not unified on the idea. The group Gun Owners of America — a more right-wing parallel to the National Rifle Association — has opposed similar legislation in the past. Anti-immigration groups, on the other hand, have endorsed it.

It’s worth noting, though, that sale of firearms to immigrants in the country illegally is already banned. The government tracks how often sales are rejected for that reason. In 2020 and 2021, there were about 11,000 sales rejected because the buyer was flagged as being in the country illegally according to an FBI report. That’s less than half as often as sales were blocked because of misdemeanor domestic violence convictions and less than two-thirds the total for people identified as being fugitives from justice.

But there are far more people flagged in the NICS indexes for immigration violations than for domestic violence. About 3 percent of rejections were for immigration violations, compared with 7 percent for domestic-violence ones. But immigration violations make up 43 percent of NICS records, while domestic violence constitutes less than 1 percent. The FBI report also notes that the number of immigration-related records grew 9 percent from 2020 to 2021.

Now consider the question of how NICS knows to flag those potential buyers. The FBI report notes that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) alone has nearly 1.9 million records in its indexes — people ICE is already watching. So if one of those people goes to buy a firearm, the sale will be blocked because of ICE’s inclusion of them in the data. So if this proposed legislation were to become law, ICE would need to be informed about the attempted purchase by someone already on their watch list — though, of course, the violation would already be documented by the FBI.

When Rep. Ben Cline (R-Va.) introduced similar legislation in 2019, he suggested that ICE might be empowered to come detain the individual. Perhaps. Given the scale at which this occurs, is this really one of the seven most important bills for the House Republican majority to consider? Or is it that it is already a proven rhetorical winner for the party?

Again, it’s not as though the majority in the House could put together a sophisticated package of proposals centered on Republican priorities that would earn approval enough to become law. House legislation is mostly useful in this moment as a way of drawing contrasts and attention.

But we should at least recognize that reality.

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