There is more than may appear in President Obama’s plan to cut the social safety net in his new budget proposal. The offer, on the face of it, reflects a significant violation of a major liberal creed, discarding the strongest liberal political card, and Obama’s peculiar negotiation style of making major concessions at the opening of a give-and-take session. But it also reflects the sad but true fact that the dynamics of American politics cannot be understood in terms of Democrats vs. Republicans. Party labels aside, the nation is still being ruled by what I call a majority “conservative party.”
If Democrats and Republicans were the true divide, the meager gun control measures recently introduced in the Senate would have the majority needed to pass. After all, there are 53 Democratic Senators (and two independents who generally side with them). Moreover, this time, the threat of a GOP filibuster is not to blame. Yet the Democratic majority leader, Senator Harry Reid, removed the assault weapons ban from the draft bill, because some 15 Democratic senators, in effect, supported the conservative, pro-gun position, making up — with the Republican senators — that majority “conservative party.” Thanks to this party, the same legislative defeat is about to befall liberal proposals to curtail high-capacity magazines. This leaves only better background checks on the table, but these, too, will inevitably be rendered ineffective by the conservatives via the underhanded gutting of enforcement (more about this shortly).
Social security and gun safety are but a couple of the numerous issues on which conservatives in Washington get their way and the minority liberal party loses out. Most recently, every Republican and 33 Democratic conservatives came together to repeal a tax on medical devices, a major source of funding for Obamacare. And on Dec 28, the conservative party — 42 Republicans, 30 Democrats and one Independent senator — voted to extend foreign intelligence law known as FISA, opposed by civil libertarians. We should further expect that the conservative party will keep winning on many fronts, from greatly limiting all new investments in education to unduly slashing social spending.
Some argue that the president is trying to build up a broad following so that, come the 2014 elections, the Democrats will carry the House and he will be able to push through a progressive agenda in the second half of his term. These doe-eyed optimists disregard the fact that, even if the Democrats hold both chambers, the additional Democrats elected in 2014 will largely be from so-called red (i.e., conservative) districts. The situation will then be much like 2009, when the Democrats had a majority in the House, a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, and a president in the White House, yet still could enact only very little progressive legislation. The reason? Very much the same: conservative Democrats voting with the GOP to extend the Bush tax cuts, cut social spending, weaken financial regulations, and so on.
I must regretfully add that the situation in Washington is even bleaker than what I have laid out so far. While gun control legislation makes its way through Congress (we may get slightly stricter background checks), the conservatives in Congress have passed various measures that eviscerate the agency charged with enforcing these background checks, new and old, thereby ensuring that they will remain weak and ineffective. Liberals tend to focus on passing laws; conservatives, when they cannot block or weaken the laws themselves, see to it that they are not enforced.
Conservatives in Congress have a long history of undermining the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), and new moves to this effect pile on top of old ones. The Firearms Owners’ Protection Act of 1986 bans the ATF from inspecting gun dealers more than once in any twelve month period, even if violations are uncovered, and reduces record-keeping violations from a felony to a misdemeanor offense, the result being that they are very rarely prosecuted. The 2003 and 2004 Tiahrt amendments, named for their sponsor Rep. Todd Tiahrt, require that records from the background checks of gun buyers be destroyed within 24 hours; it bars requiring gun dealers to conduct inventory checks to monitor gun thefts; and it prevents crime gun trace data from being used in court, even when a dealer has broken the law. In addition, Congress has barred the ATF repeatedly from creating a computerized database, so when a gun is recovered at a crime scene, agents must manually search through boxes of paper records to trace the firearm to dealer or purchaser.