WASHINGTON — In a period of just a few weeks, our nation has been reminded yet again of its vulnerability to mass gun violence — and the shameful powerlessness of our political system to do anything about it.
The killing of at least four people, including a 9-year-old boy, in Orange, Calif., last Wednesday barely merited front-page treatment. We now see slaughter as routine. On March 16, a 21-year-old gunman killed eight people, six of them Asian American women, in a rampage at three Atlanta-area spas. Less than a week later, another gunman, also 21, killed 10 people at a grocery store in Boulder, Colo.
These mass shootings are part of the gruesome daily death toll from gun violence. In 2020, according to the Gun Violence Archive, 19,384 Americans were killed by guns and another 24,156 used guns to commit suicide.
And the urgency level in Washington? It sure seems like zero.
Well, not quite zero. Five days before the Atlanta shootings, the House passed two bills to expand and strengthen background checks for gun buyers. They were hardly revolutionary proposals, but they would do something useful. They’re also popular. A Morning Consult/Politico poll released last month found that 84% of registered voters supported requiring background checks on all gun sales, including 77% of Republicans.
But in that other branch of our national legislature, the place where good bills go to die, nothing has happened because some senators think even these modest proposals are too much — and because the filibuster rules mean that it would take only 41 votes to kill them.
Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., has promised that the House-passed measures, or something like them, will get a vote. He should move quickly. It’s time to demonstrate, over and over, that the combination of wild filibuster abuse and GOP obstruction demand that the Senate’s rules be brought up to date. They need to match our new political circumstances, created by the radicalization of the Republican Party.
And the issue here is not just partisanship. The GOP’s current predilections overlap with the central struggle in American politics: between the will of the majority and institutions that increasingly privilege minority rule. As currently configured, our system has many more veto points against government action than the founders ever dreamed of. Meaning: Don’t blame today’s gridlock on James Madison and his checks and balances.
Background checks are just one of many issues on which the wishes of a substantial majority are ignored by governing institutions. The filibuster, gerrymandering, anti-voter rules such as those recently enacted in Georgia — and aggressive conservative judicial activism — have undercut both voting rights and limits on the power of money in politics.
Reforming these practices is imperative. The For the People Act, which targets so many of them, is another must-pass piece of legislation — and another reason to alter the filibuster.
The reforms are themselves popular. As Jane Mayer reported in an eye-popping account in The New Yorker, opponents of reform discovered in their own research that “the broad public is against them when it comes to billionaires buying elections.” That includes conservatives.
And yes, big infrastructure investments of the sort President Biden has proposed (and that Republicans seem ready to oppose en masse) are broadly endorsed by the public; so are Biden’s proposed ways of paying for them. The Morning Consult/Politico Poll, for example, found that 54% of registered voters — including 32% of Republicans — favored infrastructure improvements financed by taxes on those earning more than $400,000 annually and increases in the corporate tax rate.
Those who long for bipartisanship should consider that a system with fewer veto points could encourage rather than discourage cross-party negotiations. If the minority party knows a popular measure is likely to pass in some form, it has an incentive to try to influence its content.
In the past, before filibuster abuse became the rule in the Senate, majorities often accepted amendments from the minority to create a consensus for durable change. Now, the minority has every reason to engage in pure obstruction because — well, because it’s so easy.
If you love the status quo, a minority-rule system that frustrates any and all reforms is just the ticket. But it’s a status quo that failed us in Atlanta, and Boulder and Orange. Power corrupts, but so does powerlessness.
E.J. Dionne is on Twitter @EJDionne.