President Barack Obama has been struggling to wrap his head around the "unimaginable" idea that Congress may "defy" the American people and stop a vote on a gun control package compromise. The notion, he says, resists the "overwhelming instinct of the American people" after the massacre in Newtown, Conn., to pass gun control legislation.
Well, the unthinkable happened. The Senate's sweeping gun legislation came up short on the votes required to move forward. And despite all the idealistic calls for passage and despite the fact that many pundits and advocates seem to believe that something should be law simply because "the vast majority of Americans" support it, not every issue deserves a majoritarian decision.
To begin with, whether Democrats like it or not, this issue concerns the Constitution—where stuff was written down for a reason. That's not to say that expanding background checks or banning "assault rifles" would be unconstitutional (though you may believe they both should be). It's to say that when you begin meddling with protections explicitly laid out in the founding document, a 60-vote threshold that slows down stampeding legislators is the least we deserve.
The Founding Fathers worried that "some common impulse of passion" might lead many to subvert the rights of the few. It's a rational fear, one that is played out endlessly. Obama, who understands how to utilize public passion better than most, flew some of the Newtown families to Washington for a rally, imploring Americans to put "politics" aside and stop engaging in "political stunts." This is, by any measure, a preposterous assertion coming from a politician piggybacking tragic events for political gain. It would have been one thing, I suppose, if the gun control legislation written in the aftershock of a gruesome massacre had anything to do with the topic at hand. But what senators came up with would have done nothing to stop the shooter in Newtown—or the one in Aurora, Colo. Passions can be aggravated by events, but in this case, events have little to do with the policy at hand.
Cabinet positions and judges should probably not be held up over ideological concerns. But if Washington is internalizing the 60-vote threshold as the barrier to pass legislation, voters should be grateful. Considering Washington's propensity to politicize everything and its increasingly centralized power (what your health care looks like is now up for national referendums, for instance), slowing things down can only help.
I'm not operating under the delusion that any of this is good national politics for Republicans—though the arguments about obstructionism's dooming the GOP are probably overblown. No doubt, when the next disaster hits—and it will—Democrats will blame the overlords at the National Rifle Association and Republicans for the act of a madman. That's life.
But generally speaking, it'd be nice if Congress occasionally challenged the vagaries of American majority "instinct." Though it might seem antithetical to their very existence, politicians should be less susceptible to the temporary whims, ideological currents and fears of the majority. Theoretically, at least, elected officials' first concern is the Constitution. And if the need for gun control is predicated chiefly on the polls taken immediately after a traumatic national event, they have a perfectly reasonable justification to slow things down. In fact, if Washington internalizes the 60-vote threshold as a matter of routine, voters should be grateful. Considering Washington's propensity to politicize everything and its increasingly centralized power (what your health care looks like is now up for national referendums, for instance), this might be the only way left to diffuse democracy.