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Published: Friday, 5/3/2013 - Updated: 1 year ago

Congressional placeholders place progress on hold

BY MARILOU JOHANEK
BLADE COLUMNIST

Same as it ever was. The do-nothing 113th Congress is partisan, polarized, and gridlocked. We’ve seen this movie before. The plot never advances.

No progress on the federal budget. No end in sight to sequestration. No exceptions to the automatic spending cuts — except as needed.

Lawmakers who were flying home for spring recess needed to make sure their airport experiences were problem-free. Furloughed air traffic controllers could cause flight delays or cancellations.

Scratch sequester for the air traffic system. Members of Congress had to reconnect with constituents, update them on what’s being done on their behalf.

When nothing is done on their behalf and politicians have squat to show for months of counterproductive foot-stamping, they punt. They send out press releases with spin that makes kicking the can down the road look like exhaustive work to be continued.

They stress their efforts to reform, reconcile, or resolve issues between session breaks. It’s all talk and no action.

Nowhere was that more evident than with Congress’ failure to act on gun-safety legislation in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., massacre. What happened to 20 elementary schoolchildren and six teachers — mowed down in a hail of semiautomatic gunfire hastened by high-clip magazines — should have been impetus enough to pass common-sense gun control bills.

National polls showed 90 percent of Americans favored tougher gun regulations. Surely Congress would oblige. Powerful gun lobbyists might block a ban on assault weapons with high-capacity ammunition magazines, but at least the Senate could approve a less ambitious bill that would expand background checks on all commercial gun sales.

Most gun owners had no objection. But puppet-politicians for the National Rifle Association balked. Requiring background checks for gun buyers who are not currently subject to them wouldn’t prevent gun violence, they argued, but it would infringe on Second Amendment rights.

Undeterred, the Newtown families put on a full-court press for a federal solution to gun safety. One step, even a modest one, could lead to a meaningful overhaul of the country’s gun laws.

The reform they pushed could change cultural attitudes about guns. They had to start somewhere. Suspending their grief, parents of the slain children traveled to Washington.

They testified through tears in the Senate. They stood behind banks of microphones. They clung to pictures of their dead babies.

They let themselves be used in the first serious campaign in 20 years to influence gun safety. They did it to protect others from their nightmare. The families said the Senate gun legislation would strengthen laws already in effect, rather than undercut the constitutional right to bear arms.

But their courage in exposing raw emotion was answered with cowardice on Capitol Hill. In the end, all the Newtown mourners won was a vote to have a vote.

A Republican filibuster of the gun bill failed, but the NRA prevailed. Expanded background checks and separate gun measures were defeated in the Senate after fierce lobbying by firearms advocates.

Republicans, and a few Democrats, caved in to special interests. Public support for reasonable legislation to combat gun violence was strong, but the NRA was stronger. It counted on reliable allies in Congress to oppose anything but unlimited access to firearms.

Ohio Sen. Rob Portman did not disappoint. He voted against a bipartisan Senate proposal that would have closed a loophole for private gun sellers, including those at gun shows and on the Internet.

The measure, brokered by Sens. Joe Manchin (D., W.Va.) and Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) would have exempted most sales between family members and friends. Their compromise hardly was broad reform, but Mr. Portman preferred a weaker GOP alternative that also failed to pass.

The Cincinnati Republican, rated “A” by the NRA on pro-gun rights policies, insisted that principle, not politics, drove him to defeat the Manchin-Toomey bill. Tell that to the 84 percent of Ohio voters, including 80 percent of households with guns, who supported universal background checks for gun buyers.

Will they buy the Portman spin? Or will they interpret his vote against their collective wishes as the cop-out of a partisan, risk-averse, politician who puts job preservation above the will of the people?

Do-nothing placeholders in Congress have to go. They put progress on hold. Same as it’s ever been.

Marilou Johanek is a columnist for The Blade. Contact her at: mjohanek@theblade.com



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