President Barack Obama frowns as he speaks during a news conference in the Rose Garden of the White House, in Washington, on Wednesday, April 17, 2013, about a bill to expand background checks on guns that was defeated in the Senate. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
For the past three months the White House sought to strengthen the nation’s background check system for gun sales by making a two-part argument: it was the right thing to do, and 90 percent of Americans supported the idea.
It seemed to be a strong case. But, the realities of Congress — geography, electoral cycles etc. — complicated its persuasiveness. And, the ban on earmarks killed it.
Washington used to be a place where lawmakers openly traded votes for both concrete and symbolic concessions from the executive branch, whether it was a project in a member’s district or simply the president’s presence at a specific event.
But the press, watchdog groups and many politicians began demonizing this practice and now, appropriations bills are free of the so-called “earmarks” that eased the passage of everything from the North American Free Trade Agreement under President Bill Clinton to prescription drug coverage for seniors under President George W. Bush.
No one can accuse President Obama or Vice President Biden — whose office oversaw the White House strategy on gun legislation — of sitting on the sidelines when it came to the compromise bill authored by Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WVa.) and Pat Toomey (R-Penn.). Biden made calls and held meetings with state, local and national politicians each week since his office issued the Administration’s gun plan more than three months ago. The White House worked with lawmakers to help craft the bipartisan compromise, according to White House officials, and Obama personally called undecided Republicans and Democrats both last week and then on Tuesday and Wednesday — right up until the Senate vote.
They also tried to ramp up pressure on senators through outside groups, whether it was the families of victims in December’s Newtown, Conn., shooting or the independent advertising campaign bankrolled by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. First Lady Michelle Obama even ventured into the political arena, speaking about the impact of gun violence at the funeral for Chicago teenager Hadiya Pendleton.
But at no time did the president try to use some of the more concrete tools at his disposal — his ability to make executive appointments, for example, or other favors the executive branch can provide including hosting fundraisers or appearing in members’ states (or not) — to bring over some of the Senate holdouts. Obama is still in the process of making appointments to national commissions and the federal bench, for example, and his agencies regularly make policy decisions that affect states in myriad ways.
Obama has traditionally shied away from this sort of dealmaking, a practice he and many of his allies associate with the Washington establishment
President Clinton, by contrast, embraced it. When his 1993 budget appeared destined for defeat, he got his 218th vote in the House not by giving away a bridge or an airport, but by offering then-Rep. Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky a major presidential summit on the debt, deficits and entitlements in her district. A few months later Clinton appeared on national TV at Bryn Mawr University, praising the congresswoman for her work on the issue.
It’s not just Democrats who miss this sort of negotiating tactic at times. A year ago House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) told a reporter he missed earmarks because they made it so much easier to pass legislation.
“When it comes to things like the highway bill, which used to be very bipartisan, you have to understand it was greased to be bipartisan with 6,371 earmarks,” Boehner said. “You take the earmarks away and guess what? All of a sudden people are beginning to look at the real policy behind it.”
The White House is not expressing any regrets about their gun-control strategy.
“I think what the President is frustrated by, in reaction to the gun vote yesterday,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters Thursday, “was a willingness to willfully distort the facts that were included in that legislation, and as I mentioned, the outsized influence that’s being exercised by some special interests in Washington, D.C. and the unwillingness of some members of the United States Senate to stand up to them.”
But in the end, public policy doesn’t always reflect the most morally-compelling argument. It’s shaped by the final vote once the clerk calls the roll.
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