Probably the most rousing moment in President Obama's 2013 State of the Union Address was the moment when he stated that the families affected by gun violence "deserve a simple vote." The moment was loaded with meaning, and not simply because gun regulation is one of the hot button topics of the moment.
In a democratic system of government, the sentiment seems obvious to the point of absurdity. Of course Congress will vote on these policies, why would it not? In actuality, there are a couple of reasons why there might not be a vote on these issues. Some are political and some are practical, but the President turned the crosshairs of his masterful oratory on all of them.
The most important reason that members of Congress may not want there to be a vote on these issues is accountability. If these policies come to a vote, then your Congressional delegation will have to vote on these issues. That means putting their opinions on these issues in the record. You know, the record. That place where political advertising does its research. As long as a Congressman doesn't have to vote on things, he can't be seen as on the record for the "wrong" stance on things.
The story of how a congressman gets on the wrong side of issues with majority public support is a familiar one, and its antagonist is one you've maybe heard of: "special interest groups." You see, the President's gun policies all receive majority approval among Americans, many of them enjoy large majorities, and a couple have nearly universal support. Unfortunately, average Americans elect Congress, but don't pay for much of their campaigns. That money comes from special interest groups like the NRA. And if the NRA isn't supporting you, they just might be supporting your opponent. (And Congress, slow on the uptake as ever, hasn't noticed that the NRA is a shadow of its former self.)
So if these policies come to a vote, your friendly neighborhood Congressional representatives will have to show themselves to be out of step with their constituencies, and beholden to the bogeyman of special interest money. And then their opponents and SuperPACs might take that information and run ads against them.
The other, perhaps more existential problem is not one of politics but is one of actual Congressional process. Will John Boehner even allow these things to come to a vote in the House of Representatives? Will Mitch McConnell or another Senate Republican filibuster these proposals before a vote can happen?
I honestly don't think that John Boehner will keep these policies off the floor. It would be tremendously unpopular and, well, I just don't think he's quite that craven...
...as for Senate Republicans? Yeah, I can totally see one of them filibustering these proposals. But that's a death sentence, right? If a member of the GOP stands up on the Senate floor and filibusters the bill
he'd get run out of town, right?
For the last time, no. Because this is 2013 and that is not how filibusters work anymore. Any Senator can, from the privacy of his own office or home, phone in a "filibuster" and then it will require a vote for cloture attaining 60 votes in favor to end the filibuster and bring the matter to the floor. This is not the "simple" vote the President asked for. It's not the "up-or-down vote" he was alluding to. It's a way for the minority party to hold control of a body that was designed, like all democratic bodies, to function with "majority rule." (Seriously, it was. Why do you think the Vice President's only governing duty is to break Senate TIES? If the Senate was designed solely to allow the minority party to obstruct governance, the Veep's job would be to help get cloture).
So, what was President Obama really asking for? A simple vote. Not a vote for cloture. A vote where all members of Congress look the C-SPAN cameras and the Congressional Record in the eye (so to speak) and declare whether they stand with the gun lobby or with the majority of Americans. And it's this, that makes the President's plea so effective and so simultaneously depressing. He literally had to ask Congress not to use cheap protocol tricks to duck their responsibility to vote on things.
Now if only we could get this President to show this kind of emotion about other people's kids, then we'd be getting somewhere.