Normative Narratives

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Much Ado About a “Do Nothing Congress”

A recent NYT article cast a gloomy picture for those hoping for a Democratic super-majority after the 2014 Midterm Elections.

History says President Obama should brace for another round of midterm election losses next year — and be grateful for the opportunity.

Unlike presidents who never got the same chance, Mr. Obama is in line to become only the fifth president since Harry S. Truman to serve long enough for a second midterm election, and the possibility that his party might hold or gain ground in Congress in his sixth year in office. But the unhappy record of his two-term predecessors — none of whom gained control of either legislative chamber — offers scant comfort about his prospects.

However, there is reason to believe the Democrats may retake the House. Two forces in particular are working in their favor.

1) The Democratic Party is more popular than the G.O.P (Gallup Poll):

The two parties’ favorability ratings are at the lower end of the range Gallup has measured for each, although the GOP has the lower absolute rating. The Democratic Party’s current favorability rating of 42% is similar to what it was during most of 2010 — a year in which the Democrats lost 63 House seats and majority control in that chamber.

Moderates More Likely to Prefer Democratic Party Over Republican Party

While the two parties rely on their ideological soul mates for support — Republicans depend on conservatives, while Democrats lean on liberals — both parties also need at least some support from the political center to win elections. Self-described moderates are more likely to have a favorable image of the Democratic Party (47%) than of the Republican Party (27%), which may prove problematic for the GOP next year in the congressional elections. It is worth noting, however, that moderates typically lean more Democratic than Republican.

Parties' Favorability, by Self-Reported Ideology, December 2013

The Republican Party can hardly claim to have locked up its support among conservatives, who are as likely to have a favorable (47%) as an unfavorable (46%) image of the GOP. Liberals, by contrast, are more unified in their support for the Democratic Party, with 71% viewing the party favorably.

2) People don’t like a “Do-Nothing” Congress:

Trend: Do you approve or disapprove of the way Congress is handling its job?

And the 113th Congress is a “Do-Nothing” Congress.

This Friday, the 113th Congress will end its 2013 session with a less-than-distinguished title: one of the least productive ever.

Halfway through its term, Congress has passed 56 laws. By comparison, 10 years ago, the 108thCongress passed 504 laws between 2003 and 2004. A decade before, the 103rd passed 473 laws, according to GovTrack, a site that monitors legislation.

The current Congress’s predecessor, the 112th — thought to be the least productive ever — managed to pass 284. The 113th Congress is on track to underperform even that cohort.

The original “Do-Nothing” Congress, the 80th U.S. Congress, enjoyed a Republican super-majority. By the time the 81st Congress was sworn in, Democrats had taken over the majority in both the House and the Senate.

Now, the fact that Congress is currently split–Democrats have the majority in the Senate, while the G.O.P controls the house–paves the way for much more finger-pointing than in the 81st congressional election. The experts believe only 20 something seats are truly “up for grabs”, and the Democrats need to win almost all of them (17) to take a majority in the House. However, given the relative unpopularity of the G.O.P (both among conservatives and moderates), it would appear that Democrats primed to take many of the undecided seats.

Lots of time still remains before the 2014 midterm elections, and the political landscape can change drastically between now and then. If there is one things you can predict in democratic elections, it is unpredictability.

“I don’t think there are any formulas” for midterm election results, said Ken Khachigian, a former Reagan speechwriter. “We underplay the fact that elections are elections with individual candidates.”


Transparency Thursday: Inching Our Way Towards Meaningful Gun Regulations


“In a possible harbinger of bipartisan support for a small piece of legislation to curb gun violence, the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday approved a measure that would make the practice of illegally buying a gun for someone else a felony, and increase penalties for the crime.

The measure, which addresses so-called straw purchasing, passed the committee by 11 to 7; the only Republican to vote in favor was Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa. Mr. Grassley’s nod on the measure, which already had two Republican co-sponsors, was significant because he is the most senior member of the committee. The panel is comprised of 10 Democrats and 8 Republicans.”

This is a good first step, imposing stricter penalties for so called “straw” gun purchases. It is a bit alarming that only one Republican Senator voted in favor of this measure, considering a recent Gallup Poll (1/23/13) showed an overwhelming majority of both Democrats (81%) and Republicans (75%) support tougher penalties for such crimes. But still, the bill passed with support from the most senior Republican Senator on the committee.

Still, harsher penalties for “straw” gun purchases amount to only a partial fix. “Most gun safety experts say they believe that straw purchasing and background check measures work in tandem. A failure by Congress to pass more than a modified straw purchasing bill would be a victory for the National Rifle Association, which opposes each measure.”

The same committee will vote on universal background checks for potential gun buyers; perhaps a longer waiting period in order to obtain the necessary information will be part of newly proposed laws. The same Gallup poll showed even greater bipartisan support for “requiring criminal background checks for all gun sales” (97% of Democrats and 92% of Republicans agree with such measures). I would argue not only should there be a criminal background check, but also a mental health evaluation, we will have to wait and see what is proposed in future bills. Hopefully the committee represents those it was elected by, and comes up with a working background check / “straw” purchase system to ensure that responsible adults can enjoy their guns while those who are not responsible enough (due to criminal or mental health history) cannot obtain guns.

I would argue that “straw” purchases and universal background checks both rely on better overall mental healthcare. Often, it is the poor who cannot afford mental healthcare; these people may then turn to violence because they are not getting the help they need. By no means should having a psychological disorder prohibit someone from owning a gun, but it should raise a red-flag that makes anyone reviewing the case pay special attention to exactly what the condition is and if it is accompanied by a history of violent and/or anti-social behavior.

“The committee is also set to consider the reauthorization of a program that provides matching grants for school safety improvements, as well as a measure that would greatly expand background checks for gun buyers, with the goal of preventing sales to people with criminal records or a history of mental illness.”

Mental health and criminal background checks must be viewed on a case-by-case basis; this may be expensive and time consuming, but it is the price we must to pay for responsible gun ownership.

While criminal records are readily available, it is harder to get information on a person’s mental health history. A “positive externality” of the Affordable Care Act is that it will expand mental health coverage to many American’s who currently do not qualify for such coverage. This will make meaningful universal background checks more feasible. The Affordable Care Act, starting in 2014, will help those previously uninsured get insurance not only for physical illness, but also for mental health disorders:

“…it can be difficult for people with mental health and substance use disorders to find affordable, quality coverage in the health insurance marketplace.  Right now, estimates show that one-fifth to one-third of the uninsured are people with mental and substance use disorders.

  • Starting in 2014, substance abuse or mental illness can no longer be used by insurers to deny coverage as a “pre-existing condition” – and insurers also won’t be able to use those conditions to raise your premiums.
  • Also in 2014, mental health and substance use disorder services will be part of the essential benefits package, a set of health care service categories that must be covered by certain plans, including all insurance policies that will be offered through the Exchanges, and Medicaid.

These reforms all work to make the health insurance marketplace a more accessible, affordable place for people with mental health and substance abuse disorders.”

Mental healthcare coverage and a mental health evaluation for purchasing a firearm are two different yet related issues. Better overall mental health coverage will afford someone reviewing a background check more information than they would otherwise be able to obtain from a single evaluation. Both are necessary steps to ensure guns are only used by responsible people.

I hope congress also re-authorizes the grant for school safety. If cash-strapped municipalities receive federal assistance, they will have more money to station armed police officers at all schools (possibly more than one depending on the size of the student body).

It seems that the Senate is enacting (or at least considering) many of the common-sense gun laws advocated here at Normative Narratives in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook tragedy (Gallup Polls show widespread support for many of these measures across the political spectrum). Non-gun owners can feel safer knowing there are stricter gun laws, while responsible gun owners can rest more easily knowing they have no fear of “having their guns taken away” (which was really never a threat to begin with). 

Again, this is the first step of many common sense gun laws needed to make America a safer place. No amount of gun laws will ever end all gun-related violence; there will always be people who are hell-bent on causing pain and no law or regulation will be able to stop them. But by putting these common sense gun laws in place, gun-related violence WILL go down (not may, will). These laws will cost money, but that is the cost of having “the right to bear arms” in contemporary America.

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