[W]e have learned lessons in the ethics of human relationships — how devotion to the public good, unselfish service, never-ending consideration of human needs are in themselves conquering forces.
Democracy looks to the day when these virtues will be required and expected of those who serve the public officially and unofficially. — FDR, Rochester, MN, August 18, 1934
In the wake of the Senate’s refusal to advance legislation that would have expanded background checks for gun purchasers, President Obama gave a brief but impassioned speech in which he promised “to speak plainly and honestly” to the American people about how a bill that had the support of 90 percent of the public could not make it through the U.S. Congress. After all, the president continued, the legislation was bipartisan and designed merely “to extend the same background check rules that already apply to guns purchased from a dealer to guns purchased at shows or over the Internet.” The bill, he said, showed “respect for gun owners” and “respect for the victims of gun violence”; it represented “moderation and common sense.” Moreover, a majority of United States senators voted in favor of the measure, and yet it still went down to defeat, blocked by a minority “who caved to the pressure” of the well-financed gun lobby and “started looking for an excuse — any excuse — to vote ‘no.’”
The president called this “shameful” and noted that thanks to the “willful lies” of the NRA and its allies and the “continuing distortion of Senate rules,” a minority was able to block the majority from passing a common-sense measure that would “make it harder for criminals and those with severe mental illnesses to buy a gun.” Such obstructionist tactics were far less common during the New Deal era, but FDR’s appeals to the American people to never stop fighting for progress may be the key to breaking the Senate’s current logjam.
This is not the first time President Obama has made reference to the frustration he and many other Americans feel about the relentless tendency of a minority of senators to block action by the Senate as a whole. In an equally passionate section of his recent State of the Union Address, the president pleaded again and again with Congress, not necessarily to pass the gun legislation he favored, but simply to bring the measures he outlined on gun violence to a vote because the people of Newtown, Aurora, Oak Creek, Tucson, Blacksburg and “the countless other communities ripped open by gun violence” deserved it.
Although he did not refer to it by name, what the president is referencing here is the ever-increasing use of the filibuster by the minority party in the Senate — in this case the Republican Party — to thwart the will of the majority. Filibusters used to be a rarity. During Franklin Roosevelt’s 12-year tenure as president, for example, the filibuster was used a total of six times, including twice in the 1930s to block anti-lynching legislation. But thanks to rule changes that took place in 1975, it is now much easier for senators to use the filibuster or even the threat of a filibuster to stop legislation from coming before the Senate for an actual up or down vote.
Ironically, the changes that were instituted by the Senate leadership at that time — including a reduction in the number of votes needed to close off debate from 67 to 60 and the removal of the need for the senators involved to actually be on the floor of the Senate — were expected to make it easier — not harder — to bring legislation forward. But the effect has been just the opposite. This is especially true with respect to the removal of the need to be present in the Senate chamber, since this change has meant that virtually every piece of legislation (with the exception of budget legislation) requires a 60-vote supermajority to move forward in the Senate.
Prior to the 1990s, the historical association of the filibuster as an exceptional measure kept the number of uses relatively low. But since the 1990s, the use of the filibuster by both parties has increased dramatically, averaging 34 per year. And in the past six years, the Republican minority has used the filibuster to block or stall the Senate’s business, including the ratification of federal judges and other top government officials, over 170 times.
As President Obama noted in his remarks in the Rose Garden on the Senate’s failure to move the gun control provisions forward, a number of senators have characterized their blocking move as a “victory.” But given the Constitution’s unequivocal language about majority rule in the Senate (not to mention the fact that there is no mention of the filibuster) and polling data that shows 9 out of 10 Americans support expanding background checks for gun purchases, the president is right to ask, “a victory for who? A victory for what? ... It begs the question, who are we here to represent?”
He is also right to urge the American people to act on their frustration in the one place where they can truly make a difference — the voting booth. The president’s insistence that we can still bring about meaningful change to reduce gun violence so long as we “don’t give up on it,” demand action from our representatives, and when action is not forthcoming, “send the right people to Washington,” is not unlike the advice that FDR gave the American people in the dark days of the mid-1930s. We should remember that FDR’s efforts to use government to affect such meaningful reforms as Social Security, unemployment insurance or the regulation of the stock market also elicited fierce opposition from a small but vocal minority that claimed these measures were an affront to the American people’s basic liberties.
But in response to these shrill efforts to stifle reform by attacking government, FDR had a simple answer. As he told an audience gathered in Marietta, Ohio in 1938:
Let us not be afraid to help each other — let us never forget that government is ourselves and not an alien power over us. The ultimate rulers of our democracy are not a president and senators and congressmen and government officials but the voters of this country.
I believe that the American people, not afraid of their own capacity to choose forward-looking representatives to run their government, want the same cooperative security and have the same courage to achieve it, in 1938, as in 1788. I am sure they know that we shall always have a frontier — of social and economic problems — and that we must always move in to bring law and order to it. In that confidence I am pushing on. I am sure that the people of the Nation will push on with me.
President Obama is right. The effort to bring about meaningful reform of the nation’s gun laws is not over, and if this Congress refuses to listen to the American people, then the voters have every right to send new representatives to Washington who will. But given the power and wealth of such anti-government special interest groups as the NRA, President Obama, like Franklin Roosevelt before him, will need to keep reminding the American people that government is indeed “ourselves,” and if we do not want it to become “an alien power over us,” each of us will need to take our responsibility to vote seriously. As things stand right now, the very essence of our democracy may depend on it.