Seriously, fuck these guys. Photo via Rex USA
By now, you’ve probably already heard that the Senate voted down a gun control proposal yesterday—actually, they voted down a lot of different proposals, but the one that got the most attention was an amendment, proposed by Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, and Pat Toomey, a Republican from Pennsylvania, that would have essentially mandated background checks for everyone who buys a gun.
The argument for the Toomey–Manchin amendment was pretty easy to explain, even to a child: “Well, Timmy, guns might be tools for hunting, they might be collected and handled safely by millions of hobbyists and enthusiasts, but it’s also really, really easy to kill people if you have a gun—it would be a good idea to make sure that the people who were buying guns weren’t crazy or criminals.” [tousles Timmy’s hair playfully] The arguments against the amendment were mostly that criminals wouldn’t obey the law anyway, that background checks wouldn’t have stopped the Newtown massacre, and that the amendment was actually too pro-gun—all of which would seem to indicate that we need more restrictions on gun ownership, not fewer. As many as 91 percent of Americans supported expanded background checks at one point; if anything had a chance to pass through the world’s greatest deliberative body, it was that piece of mild, mostly symbolic legislation.
That it didn’t pass isn’t an example of cowardice on the part of senators who didn’t vote for it, or some fatal flaw on behalf of its sponsors. It’s just another case of the Senate being cripplingly, pathetically gridlocked and unable to do anything for anyone.
It should be pointed out, repeatedly, that most senators voted for the Toomey–Manchin amendment—54 out of 100—but you need 60 votes to pass anything, and the reasons why are much harder to explain to a child than the reasons for the amendment itself: “You see, Timmy, although the Founding Fathers stipulated that bills could pass either house of Congress by a simple majority, they also put this thing in there that let any senator stall a vote by making a speech, and uhhhh, thanks to a series of procedural reforms enacted over the years, now a senator can just stop a bill by saying no once, and it takes 60 votes to overrule that no. This is good because, um. Fuck you, that’s why. Go play your Xbox.”
This makes it easy for the minority party to stop legislation—and the minority party right now, the GOP, doesn’t even represent all that many people. Thanks to every state's getting two senators, small states have a disproportionate amount of power in the Senate, and rural voters effectively count more than urban ones. Take the vote on Toomey–Manchin as an example: 16 states had both senators vote against it. Those states (Alaska, North Dakota, Arkansas, Tennessee, Wyoming, Georgia, Indiana, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Texas, Idaho, Nebraska, Utah, South Carolina, Alabama, and Kansas) have a total of (roughly) 80.2 million people in them, but 26 million of those people are in Texas. The other 15 pro-gun states have a combined population of 54.2 million out of the country’s 312 million, but 30 out of the Senate’s 100 votes. This disproportional representation means that the purpose of today’s Senate is to serve the interests of conservative, less-populated, rural states and also to stop anything from happening.
Even if you hate gun control, even if you hated the Toomey–Manchin amendment with every fiber of your being, you should be a little concerned it didn’t pass. This was a policy that most Americans wanted, and the senators who represented most Americans voted in favor of it. But it didn’t pass, because the Senate is now incapable of doing anything more complicated than getting its members elected again.
Senators have a lot of stuff at their disposal to help them pass laws—staffs of lawyers and PR people and interns, a big fancy building to hold debates in, the constitutional authority to decide how hundreds of millions of people should be governed. If all they do with all those perks is stop one another from getting anything done, maybe we shouldn’t have senators at all.
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