Moderate Dems Should Reconsider Their Votes on Motions to Recommit

When Nancy Pelosi and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are agreeing on matters of procedural voting, you get the idea it’s significant. (Photo Credit: Julio Obscura/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

I don’t always agree with Nancy Pelosi. Neither does Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. But I think all three of us are in accord on the point that moderate Democrats should be wary of Republican attempts to use motions to recommit to divide the party, and this to me speaks volumes.

First, a little backdrop: what the heck is a motion to recommit? According to an archived page on the official House of Representatives website under the banner of the late Democratic representative Louise Slaughter:

The motion to recommit provides one final opportunity for the House to debate and amend a measure, typically after the engrossment and third reading of the bill, before the Speaker orders the vote on final passage. The motion is the prerogative of the Minority party and in many cases constitutes the Minority’s one opportunity to obtain a vote on an alternative or a proposal to improve the measure. In the case of a bill or a joint resolution, the Rules of the House prohibit the Rules Committee from reporting a special rule that denies a motion to recommit with instructions.

As this synopsis goes on to explain, there are two types of motions to recommit: those with and without instructions. In the case of the former, when the motion is adopted, the measure is reported back to the House with the instructed amendment, the House votes on the amendment, and if it is adopted, then the measure goes through engrossment (preparation of an official printed copy of a measure as it has been modified), an additional reading, and final passage. In the case of the latter, the motion, when adopted, sends a piece of legislation back to committee without a final vote. Scintillating stuff, I know.

Frequently, motions to recommit have been simple matters of procedure. The minority party seeks to modify a bill, party-line votes occur, end of story. Increasingly of late, however, motions to recommit are being weaponized by the minority party—in this case, the Republican Party—to sway centrist Democrats on “wedge” issues, notably those from what are considered “swing” districts.

This brings us up to speed and to the events of the past two weeks or so. Ed Kilgore, writing for New York Magazine, penned an article about a recent flare-up of tensions within the Democratic Party over one of these last-minute motions that actually got added to a bill as an amendment. The crux of the legislation was devoted to closing the gun show loophole. Seems fair, sensible. The problem arose when 26 Democrats voted in favor of a motion to recommit that added language instructing law enforcement officials to notify ICE if an “illegal immigrant” tries to purchase a gun.

For someone like Ocasio-Cortez, who made “abolish ICE” part of her campaign platform and who represents a district very sensitive to the Trump administration’s more hostile tone toward immigrant populations (the use of the phrase “illegal immigrant,” in it of itself, is a sticking point), having to vote on a measure that essentially makes her choose between gun safety and immigrant rights is understandably awkward. For Speaker Pelosi, an establishment Democrat charged with keeping the peace in her house, the breaking of ranks is, if nothing else, a bad look for the party. The whole episode feeds into a media narrative desperate to sow the seeds of conflict between and within the major political parties (and sell subscriptions).

For the moderate Democrats who voted “yea” on the motion to recommit, however, they present their own grievances, buoyed by the objections of someone like AOC. Ocasio-Cortez, for one, represents a non-competitive district. Xochitl Torres Small, conversely, represents New Mexico’s 2nd Congressional District, which went for Donald Trump in the 2016 election by more than 10 points, and she is cited within Kilgore’s article as bristling at AOC’s criticisms. As these centrists would aver, it’s easy to preach party unity when you’re sitting in deep blue territory but it’s a horse of a different color when you hail from a locale in which border security is a more contentious and relevant topic.

Making matters worse is the insinuation that critics of Democrats who voted with Republicans on motions to recommit could face primary changes if they continue to step across the aisle in bad faith. Kilgore references a Washington Post article on this same set of events, in which one of Ocasio-Cortez’s spokespeople, Corbin Trent, is quoted as saying Democrats who side with Republicans “are putting themselves on a list.” That remark, in its vagueness, has been interpreted as a warning to these moderates that progressives will support primary challengers looking to unseat them in upcoming elections. As you would expect, this news was not particularly well-received.

Josh Gottheimer, co-chair of the centrist Problem Solvers Caucus, called this purported list “Nixonian” in its applications while maintaining that the Democratic Party needs a “big tent” to remain in control of the House. Ocasio-Cortez later clarified that she isn’t threatening to primary Gottheimer or anyone else and that she simply was frustrated at being compelled to vote for a pro-ICE provision within the gun show loophole bill in light of the last-minute changes and the short timetable for a vote. Her “list” comment, if anything, was a heads-up to Gottheimer and other Problem Solvers that they ran the risk of being added to a list of potential primary challenges or siding with Republicans—not that she would be the one leading the charge.

I have become familiar with Josh Gottheimer through my participation in political activism groups based in and around New Jersey’s district, and speaking as a direct observer, I find his whole involvement with the motion to recommit and his subsequent comments to be disingenuous and made in poor taste. It’s true that Josh’s district is a more competitive one. For him to lobby criticisms while serving as co-chair of a Problem Solvers Caucus that, of late, has seemingly caused more problems than it has solved—and which refuses to provide a list of its members even when directly asked—frames his own pleas for party unity in an odd context.

This is especially so when he has spent the better part of this past week serving as the pro-Israel lobby’s attack dog/shameless defender. With all the time and energy spent admonishing Ilhan Omar after she wished to advance a legitimate conversation about the influence of lobbyist money in American politics, he could be, you know, actually holding a real town hall to interact with and field the concerns of his constituents or, say, taking a meaningful stance on immigration and Pres. Trump’s hateful rhetoric. But yours is a swing district. I forgot that means you can’t be held accountable, Rep. Gottheimer.


Ed Kilgore has these parting words for Nancy Pelosi and the rest of the House Democrats regarding the strife brought out about by party members breaking ranks:

These tensions create some serious problems for Nancy Pelosi, who must cater to every faction in her caucus. One option for her is simply to impose party discipline and insist moderates bite the bullet on cleverly designed Republican poison-pill amendments. As she and others pointed out in the caucus meeting, Republicans managed to vote down similar Democratic gambits routinely when they controlled the House, adopting a “just say no” party line on all procedural motions from the other side of the aisle.

Alternatively, Pelosi may have to rethink how much value there really is for her caucus and party in “messaging” bills like the gun measure, which is about as likely to be considered in the Republican-controlled Senate as a bill to double Planned Parenthood’s funding. A symbolic gesture toward an important if presently unachievable goal like better gun regulation is a lot more effective if Democrats can agree in advance not to let themselves get distracted by Republican hijinks. The last thing they need is a public “struggle for the soul of the Democratic Party,” with media hounds eagerly feeding on every morsel of conflict.

In a sense, I agree with Josh Gottheimer that the Democratic Party needs to be able to accommodate differences of opinion and nuanced arguments across issues. While a large degree of consensus is to be expected keeping the party’s ideals in mind, positions evolve and debates can be had. In some cases, deviations from the party line can be cheered rather than bemoaned. They reveal a capacity for independent thought and a willingness to stand apart in a substantive way. It’s something I wish more congressional Republicans would do instead of trading in their backbones for MAGA hats.

These sentiments presume, of course, that these motions to recommit and other “debates” are made in good faith. More and more, however, the evidence suggests this is not the case or that matters which have no meaningful point of compromise are approached with a spirit of capitulation. Kilgore is correct that the gun show loophole bill is the kind that is all but dead on arrival in the Senate. The best the GOP could hope for was to get ICE language added to the bill and to cause a ruckus among the Dems. If the back-and-forth between Gottheimer and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and Nancy Pelosi’s public call to order are any indication, Republicans succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. The Democrats, in this instance, looked weak—over a procedural vote, no less. House Democrats should be smarter than that.

Additionally, on ICE specifically, the Democratic Party needs to understand that defections under the guise of working within “political realities” undermine the value of the party’s messaging as a whole in its appeal to diversity. How does one reconcile putting women and children in cages and having people die while in federal custody with respect for communities of color as a function of humanity as a whole? Why is this even treated like a debate? It’s cruel and immoral, and Democrats should not be afraid to condemn these crimes.

Besides, it’s not as if concerns about border security require such barbarism. Even if these fears are overblown, there are ways to address the immigration issue without inhumane conditions or a costly wall and while holding relevant federal agencies accountable. Staying silent or treading lightly in the name of political expediency only invites further attempts by the Republican Party to chip away at the Democrats’ unified front.

Even with “messaging” bills, votes matter, especially in a day and age when information is so visible and so rapidly spread. Moderate Democrats should reconsider their votes on motions to recommit made in bad faith—and reflect on their commitment to their party’s ideals in doing so.

But Seriously, About Those Background Checks…

93350488-1024x665
There are a lot of reasons people have against expansion of background checks for gun sales, and by and large, they blow. (Photo Credit: Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images)

You may have heard the Senate was scheduled to vote on four pieces of legislation regarding gun control. Well, it happened—and all of them failed to pass. Big shock, I know. Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s  (D-CA) proposal to allow the Attorney General to deny firearms and explosives to suspected terrorists was defeated 53 – 47, falling short of the needed 60 votes to pass. Sen. John Corryn’s (R-TX) bill to permit authorities to delay a gun sale if a judge rules there is probable cause to deny the firearm outright failed by the same margin. A proposal from Sens. Chris Murphy (D-CT), Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) to expand background checks for all gun purchases, even through gun shows and online, was split 56 – 44. And Sen. Charles Grassley’s (R-IA) bill to increase government funding to run background checks without requiring their expansion likewise failed to reach the magic number of 60, with Democrats reacting negatively (and understandably so) to an amendment which would allow people involuntarily committed to a psychiatric institution for a “mental illness” to buy a gun once released.

 

Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) put it pretty succinctly when he said, “Senate Republicans ought to be embarrassed, but they’re not, because the NRA is happy.” It’s no secret that, regarding Congress’s persistence in acting against the desires of a majority of Americans with respect to gun control, the National Rifle Association, a small but powerful (and persistent) group is the one pulling the strings in the Republican Party. With all of the above votes, splits occurred more or less along party lines. So, if you are dismayed by the results of the above exercises in futility, you know who you have to personally thank.

Why is the NRA so resistant to an expansion of background checks, in any form? I’ve heard a number of their talking points before on this matter, but just for kicks, I decided to sift through a more detailed explanation on why the National Rifle Association rejects all attempts to promote gun control. On the official website for the NRA-ILA, or the Institute for Legislative Action, the NRA’s lobbying arm, there is a page regarding background information on background checks in the U.S., the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), and various arguments surrounding these topics. The following is my attempt to make sense of the NRA’s rhetoric herein. Feel free to read ahead—or skip down to the conclusion if you think you know where this is going.


According to the Department of Justice (DOJ), 77 percent of criminals in state prison for firearm crimes get firearms through theft, on the black market, from a drug dealer or “on the street,” or from family members and friends. Less than one percent get firearms from dealers or non-dealers at gun shows.

What this citation doesn’t show, however, is that only 2% of all firearm-related crimes in the U.S. are homicides. Flipping this relationship around, the results are pretty staggering. This same report found that 60% to 70% of all homicides from 1993 to 2011 were committed with a firearm. That’s a majority, and it doesn’t even begin to consider those gun-related deaths which are suicides. To speak of the sources of firearms in terms of all firearm-related crimes is disingenuous, as much as insisting that guns are irrelevant in homicide statistics would be obviously foolish.

According to the nation’s leading criminologist specializing in the study of murder, Most mass murderers do not have criminal records or a history of psychiatric hospitalization. They would not be disqualified from purchasing their weapons legally. Certainly, people cannot be denied their Second Amendment rights just because they look strange or act in an odd manner. Besides, mass killers could always find an alternative way of securing the needed weaponry, even if they had to steal from family members or friends.”

This argument cites a column by Northeastern University professor of criminology James Alan Fox, who makes a number of valid points about gun control and mass shooters. The NRA’s reference curiously, though, leaves out the closing of the article. In spite of all of Fox’s arguments which would seem to go against gun control advocates’ contentions, he has this to say about potential legislative solutions:

Sensible gun laws, affordable mental-health care, and reasonable security measures are all worthwhile, and would enhance the well being of millions of Americans. They may do much to impact the level of violent crime that plagues our nation daily. We shouldn’t, however, expect such efforts to take a big bite out of crime in its most extreme form. Of course, a nibble or two from the prevalence of mass murder would be reason enough. And efforts to promote real change in our social policies would be a fitting legacy to the tragedy in Newtown.

In short, even James Alan Fox doesn’t believe in throwing out the proverbial baby with the bathwater when it comes to gun laws designed to make us safer. Even if these reforms may not stop mass murders, which are salient, newsworthy events, there nonetheless may be merit in passing new restrictions on gun sales.

None of the mass shootings that President Barack Obama named in a White House speech on gun control in January 2016, would have been prevented by requiring background checks on private sales of firearms.

I’d like to give you a comprehensive report which the NRA-ILA cites with this statement, but it doesn’t exist. Even though this claim may be true, the NRA is essentially citing itself. Just a point of caution. Moreover, these are but a few examples that don’t speak to the possible effect of background checks on mass shootings on the whole. This article by Alan Yuhas in The Guardian points to statistics from Everytown for Gun Safety—an organization with a clear bias, but still—that illustrate a negative correlation between states that require background checks for all gun sales and incidence of mass shootings. Meaning as background checks go up, mass shootings tend to go down.

And there are additional food-for-thought-type stats cited in the Yuhas article that don’t relate to mass shootings necessarily, but do invoke a link between domestic violence, guns and fatalities, and likewise suggest background checks might be helpful in restricting access to guns for would-be murderers. All this with a ban on gun research and publishing data that the NRA has, in large part, effected, so think of what else we might find with fewer restrictions on access to data.


Close-the-Gun-Show-Loophole
“There is no gun show loophole. Climate change is a conspiracy invented by the Chinese.” What other dumb conservative ideas can we add to the mix? (Photo retrieved from about.com)

 

But, wait, there’s more! In explaining why it opposes more background checks, the NRA has a number of reasons at the ready related to the notion “gun control supporters are not being honest.” Here’s a sampling of the best points—a dubious distinction, to be sure.

Background checks are not “the most important thing we can do.”

The NRA-ILA is referencing a quote by Michael Bloomberg about background checks being the “single most important thing we can do to reduce gun violence,” and then cites a number of articles which point to a reduction in crime, none of which list gun control among the reasons crime has declined. That’s all well and good, but first of all, how can we list gun control among those reasons, when the NRA itself has all but single-handedly blocked attempts at reform? Secondly, again, it’s a bit of an apples-to-oranges comparison that is being made. The NRA is talking about a reduction in all crime, not just gun violence or mass shootings.

Thirdly, in enumerating the reasons why crime rates have gone down, some of the underlying causes are fraught with their own issues. We’re putting more criminals behind bars, but this is leading to overcrowding in prisons and is hurting whole communities, predominantly those populated by minorities. Policing is more proactive, but it’s not above criticism (allegations of brutality, civil asset forfeiture, a growing militarization of forces—shall I go on?). And there are fewer opportunities for home invasions related to the recession—because people can’t afford to live in their houses anymore or are otherwise have been foreclosed on by their lender(s). Not exactly a rosy picture, is it?

There is no “gun show loophole.”

Hmm, that’s not what Wikipedia says.

“Loophole” is a phony term.

Hmm, that’s not what the dictionary says.

It’s not “40 percent.”

The NRA here is referring to a claim President Obama made regarding the notion 40% of firearms are sold without a background check, which has since been debunked, and quickly hereafter, a record low is referenced in the number of murders in the U.S. Yet again, this is a red herring from the NRA—whatever homicide rates are, there’s nothing to say background checks for all gun purchases can’t be implemented. These are two separate issues.

It’s not “92 percent” either.

OK, fine, how about 90%? Because that’s, like, what a bajillion polls will tell you about the notion that a vast majority of Americans want to see an expansion of background checks. The NRA-ILA points to one vote in Washington state in November 2014 in which only 59% of voters approved a private sales background check initiative as evidence. But that’s one vote in one state! And the initiative still was approved by a majority of voters!


Prior to an exhaustive recounting on the history of background checks on guns in America and the requisite Works Cited list, the NRA-ILA, on this same page, ticks off several gun regulations as proof that “federal gun control laws are already strong enough,” as if these restrictions, in them of themselves, are inherent proof of this logic, such that we don’t require additional considerations for “online” or “Internet” firearm sales. To stress, I am not target the audience for this litany of objections against the U.S. government and their supposed overreach. Nevertheless, a number of these provisions seem fairly sensible to me:

  • Federal law prohibits transferring a firearm to anyone known or believed to be prohibited from possessing firearms. Sounds good to me. If you shouldn’t have a gun, you shouldn’t have a gun.
  • Federal law prohibits a non-licensee from acquiring a handgun outside his state of residence and prohibits a non-licensee from acquiring a rifle or shotgun from a non-licensee outside his state of residence. Cool. On the subject of guns, I feel everyone who owns or sells one should be licensed.
  • Federal law prohibits anyone from transferring a handgun to a non-licensee who resides in another state (with rare exceptions), and prohibits a non-licensee from transferring any firearm to a non-licensee who resides in another state. This is essentially the same idea as the last specification, except involving transfer rather than acquisition of a firearm. Either way, you now know my stance regarding licenses for gun ownership and sales.
  • Federal law prohibits the acquisition of a firearm on behalf of a person who is prohibited from possessing firearms. Exactly. I don’t know how you’d prove that much if you’re the seller, but this seems logical.
  • Federal law also prohibits dealers from selling rifles or shotguns to persons under age 18. Yeah, I don’t know think I need to tell you this, but people over the age of 18 don’t always exercise great caution and judgment when using firearms. So, do I support guns for individuals under the age of 18? Hells to the no!

In fact, now that I get the sense that the major aversion to background checks is that they are supposedly ineffective at deterring gun violence and that they are inconvenient for prospective gun buyers, let me play devil’s advocate, from the perspective of the anti-gun control voter. If an expansion of background checks for all purchases/sales of guns won’t work in preventing gun-related homicides, nor will checking people seeking to buy firearms legally against databases such as that of a terrorism watch list, why not let us try anyway? I mean, are you worried about the potential cost? If so, are you that willing to put a price on measures that might save lives?

Or let’s look at these matters another way. If background checks are a symbol of the overreach of the federal government and of stripping away our personal freedoms, namely that of the Second Amendment, then why aren’t you as concerned about the hypothetical situation of the government invading the privacy of Muslims and others it regards as a threat? Isn’t that overreach and, in all likelihood, a violation of the Bill of Rights? Or is it OK if it happens to someone else, one of them? You can’t have your cake and eat it, too—no matter what Donald Trump says.

Maybe as a non-gun-owner I just don’t understand, but as a concerned citizen, I can’t see any justification for failing to expand the use of background checks for all firearms transactions. Not any good one, at least. We can cherry-pick the statistics that support our points. We can use the Second Amendment as a crutch. We can say “guns keep us safe” until we’re blue in the face. On all counts, though, I think these positions fail to hold up under further scrutiny. Background checks may not have prevented the Orlando shooting or any number of mass shootings in recent memory, but that doesn’t mean they’re not the right thing to do.