Gun debate highlights everything awful about the U.S. Senate

From awful punditry to filibuster hypocrisy, the debate over gun reform is the worst of American politics

Published April 8, 2013 11:45AM (EDT)

The Washington Post reported yesterday evening that "senators might be on the cusp of a breakthrough" on gun legislation, after weeks of "stalled negotiations" leading to many observers pronouncing gun control doomed. (Though as Dave Weigel points out, the "all gun legislation is in deep trouble" idea arose mostly because Congress hasn't been in session and hence no work has been done on any legislation.) The savior: Pennsylvania Republican Pat Toomey, who is now negotiating with Democrat Joe Manchin, after it was determined that Oklahoma Republican Tom Coburn was not worth wasting any additional time on. Toomey, you see, needs to win reelection in Pennsylvania, so he is going to be more reasonable than someone who won't have to work very hard at all to win reelection in Oklahoma.

This is basically the way eminent Washington political elites like to pretend that the Senate is supposed to work, and the way they imagine it worked in the idealized past: A very conservative Democrat (from a tiny state) finding common ground with a Republican colleague. The fact that these careful negotiations are required when there are almost certainly already 51 votes for comprehensive background checks isn't considered particularly distressing or embarrassing. (Negotiations previously seemed on the verge of collapse because no agreement could be brokered between Chuck Schumer, a senator representing 19.5 million people, and Tom Coburn, a senator representing 3.8 million people.) A supermajority must be courted if the senators representing the will of the regular majority of Americans hope to get their way.

There is a villain in the easy narrative, too: extremists! Specifically, Rand Paul and a band of conservatives, who have promised to filibuster. Oddly, despite most senators -- especially Republican senators -- agreeing that filibusters are a Cherished Senate Tradition, this promise has received a bit of criticism.

John McCain said yesterday that he doesn't understand a threat to filibuster any gun control legislation that comes up for a vote. While many of us don't understand why John McCain, a senator with no leadership position or major national following, is constantly on Sunday news chat shows, we can perhaps help him to figure out what this filibuster thing is about.

Here's what McCain said on CBS’ “Face the Nation”:

“I don't understand it. The purpose of the United States Senate is to debate and to vote and to let the people know where we stand.”

Well. That's certainly one way of looking at the purpose of the United States Senate, though it's not a very popular interpretation among senators themselves.

McCain is one of the few senators who can boast of having defeated attempts to kill the filibuster twice, once when he was a member of the 2005 "Gang of 14" that preserved the filibuster while also allowing for the confirmation of a number of Bush judges, and once at the beginning of this year, when the effectively meaningless "filibuster reform" proposal he crafted with Carl Levin became the apparent blueprint of the "compromise" Harry Reid agreed to in January. The compromise preserved -- strengthened, probably -- the 60-vote threshold that now subjects all Senate business to the approval of the minority party and, often, the whims of the biggest cranks in that party. McCain then joined the filibuster of Caitlin Halligan, whom President Obama had nominated to the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Her nomination was withdrawn, and the court remains free of Obama appointees. Before this, McCain filibustered Obama's 9th Circuit Court of Appeals nominee Goodwin Liu. McCain also filibustered Chuck Hagel, a filibuster done primarily to set the precedent that Republicans can filibuster even defense secretary nominees, and he filibustered Richard Cordray, Obama's choice to head an agency Republicans are hoping to filibuster into nonexistence or irrelevance. Those aren't the showy, talky sorts of filibusters, though, so they do not offend McCain's sense of decency, like Rand Paul does when he speaks to the chamber instead of quietly voting "no" on cloture motions.

But if the purpose of the Senate is to debate and to vote, and filibusters interfere with that purpose, McCain has a bit of explaining to do. (Maybe he will explain next Sunday on one of those awful shows. If someone bothers to ask him about it.)

Still, it is easy to figure out why Rand Paul and Ted Cruz and various nonentities who wish to be associated with Rand Paul and Ted Cruz have preemptively promised to filibuster any gun control legislation: Because people like John McCain have worked quite hard to protect their rights to halt any legislation they please whenever they want for any reason. People like John McCain have done everything they could to make an already undemocratic body even more undemocratic, because doing so helps people like John McCain pretend they are power brokers and statesmen instead of members of organized political parties representing various interests, elected by people who assume that the party label next to the name is a reliable indicator of how that person will vote once in office.

Senators aren't the only people committed to the ideal of a Senate full of independent, moderate mavericks. Bad pundits basically eat that shit up. And on the subject of What Is Wrong With the Senate, bad pundit Chris Cillizza has written the most inane political column in the history of political columns. It is utterly ahistorical, full of lazy banalities, wholly devoid of insight and it could've been written at any point in the last 20 years. If IBM told the development team behind Watson to build an AI capable of writing centrist political analysis columns, that machine would almost certainly write a more interesting and informative column than this one.

This is the dullest imitation Broderism -- things used to be better, when grand old moderate men who respected other grand old moderate men ran everything, before the damned liberals and conservatives showed up -- I can recall reading in some time. So, the Senate sucks now, because it is more like the House, apparently. (The House of Representatives is America's more democratic legislative body -- though it still grants more power to rural than urban areas -- and Beltway elite types hate it because it is loud and full of idiots, like America.)

Things were better before!

The Senate was once regarded as the home of the great political orators of the time — not to mention the body where true dealmaking actually took place. Its members prided themselves on their cool approach to legislating, in contrast with the more brawling nature of the House. Senators, generally, liked one another — no matter their party — and weren’t afraid to show it, either personally or politically.

For years, the Senate was also known as where civil rights and anti-lynching bills go to die, because some of those great political orators devoted their oratory to protecting white supremacy, backed up by violence, at any cost. Many of those racists were much-liked by their fellow senators, of course.

Then we get to the examples, to prove that things are bad now. First, there is now too much "partisanship," which means party discipline. This happened in part because Republicans became much more disciplined, but also because after the Civil Rights Era conservatives became Republicans and liberals (and moderates) became Democrats, leaving fewer -- and then no -- random outlier liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats to grant meaningless "bipartisan" approval to liberal and conservative measures.

Second, the filibuster, sort of:

Then, the blockading. As The Post’s Juliet Eilperin noted in a Fix post last week, there are currently 15 judges nominated by President Obama awaiting votes by the full Senate. Thirteen of the 15 — or roughly 87 percent — of those nominees were approved unanimously by the Senate Judiciary Committee. And even those who get votes often have to wait forever for them. On March 11, for example, the Senate confirmed Richard Taranto for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit by a vote of 91 to 0, 484 days after the president nominated him — and he’s far from the only example of that trend.

Did you notice that Cillizza forgot to say "filibuster" in that paragraph?

Finally, the only point Cillizza actually cares about, "the nastiness." Cillizza says the problem is that so many senators now come from the House, though he is forced to acknowledge that the nastiest new senators -- Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Mike Lee -- did not come from the House.

Look, here are a bunch of charts about polarization that Cillizza could've checked out before he wrote this column in 10 minutes. He might've learned some stuff! Like that the moderation of the postwar period was actually a weird anomaly. American politics have been otherwise highly polarized since the early days of the Republic. Cillizza also could've read this big Adam Liptak piece in the New York Times about the anti-democratic effect of the Senate's inherent small-state bias and how the normalization of the filibuster has only made the problem worse. He could've checked out this editorial in his own newspaper, by Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein, pointing out that the "polarization" problem is primarily a problem of Republicans getting much, much more conservative.

These are all points that anyone who has been reading blogs and articles by any number of prominent historians and political scientists (and random smart bloggers!) over the last few years is already familiar with. Cillizza, obviously, has not been reading any political scientists or historians. He has maybe never read anything by any political scientists or historians? He has maybe only been watching Chuck Todd on MSNBC?

If gun control ends up failing, I guarantee that people like Cillizza will continue to long for the days of Civility and Moderation, and the role "moderates" play in enabling extremists will likely only be mentioned by left-wing blogger cranks whom no one takes seriously.

By Alex Pareene

Alex Pareene writes about politics for Salon and is the author of "The Rude Guide to Mitt." Email him at and follow him on Twitter @pareene

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