Congress’ Vacation From Responsibility Signals A Need To Oust Incumbents

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From Wednesday morning through to Thursday morning, those of us who inexplicably found ourselves glued to C-SPAN witnessed an uncommon sight: legislators, sat on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives demanding congressional action in the form of a vote on gun-control legislation. As of Thursday afternoon, however, the House had returned to what feels like business as usual. Which is to say that it was vacant as representatives — on the left and the right — retreated to their home districts for an early (thanks to House Speaker Paul Ryan) and lengthy recess for the July 4 holiday that is 10 days away. So much for #NoBillNoBreak, Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s claims that the sit-in would last “until hell freezes over,” and other claims that they would remain until there was action.

So, was this a “stunt,” as Paul Ryan claimed? It’s hard to believe that Rep. John Lewis (D-Georgia), a legendary Civil Rights activist, would lead a charge like this in pursuit of a hollow political victory. But despite Lewis’ perceived good intentions, it’s hard to not to look at the fact that Democrats used the sit-in as an opportunity to send out fundraising emails (as well as this early exit) and not feel as though a hollow political victory is all that was ultimately attained. Assuming that Democrats even accomplished that much.

So, what now? The 15-hour filibuster by Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut) worked in the sense that there was a vote on gun control in the Senate, but all four pieces of legislation failed to pass. And now this latest, very public effort has ended, producing sound, fury, and little else.

Democrats say that, on July 5, when they return from their vacation/campaign events (the members of the House are all running for re-election, after all), they’re going to keep up the fight, but these claims feel toothless without details or a seeming plan. Especially since they all seemed hell-bent on continuing the fight on the house floor for as long as it took as recently as Wednesday night. There’s also a concern about all the wasted time between now and July 5.

Americans and the media have repeatedly demonstrated a willingness to quickly move on from mass shootings over the last few years — at least until another one comes around. That’s less an indictment on us all as it is a side-effect of these atrocities becoming so heartbreakingly common. We know the deal: a burst of horror, a flood of thoughts and prayers and empty promises, and then the slow return to the everyday. We’re a little sadder and a little more afraid, but otherwise unchanged. The congressional inaction following this latest mass shooting affirms that cycle and primes us to repeat it next time something terrible happens. And don’t try to sell the sit-ins, filibusters, hashtags, or petitions as actual action. Action is action. Action means laws. The failed attempts to nudge change into existence aren’t really worthy of a participation badge when the stakes are this high. Especially when they run out of gas so early and burn up the public’s already low-faith in government’s ability to effectively address these life and death issues.

If you believe that gun control measures — like closing the terror loophole, universal background checks, and beginning the process of banning large capacity magazines — will help to keep the masses safer, then the fact is your side took a hit when Democrats wrapped up their protest on Thursday. The media would have continued to feed on this story and people would have continued to talk and apply pressure had Democrats stayed on the floor of the House until the other side returned from recess. But is there any guarantee that that pressure would have actually accomplished anything?

Most people don’t really like Congress, and Congress, collectively, probably doesn’t care all that much. And why should they? The most recent Gallup poll (from June 1 to June 5, predating this most recent burst of attention) puts their approval rating at 16% and it hasn’t been above 20% since October of 2012. Despite that, voters re-elected 95% of eligible incumbents in 2014, and it won’t be shocking when that same grim trend continues this year. Rather than look at why that happens (voter inattention, unshakeable party loyalty, a party system that provides incumbents with several advantages), though, let’s look at what kind of climate that creates.

Essentially, we’re all doing an awful job co-parenting Congress by constantly threatening to take away their privileges while never following through. Is it any wonder that most politicians seem more afraid of pissing off big-pocketed special interests than they are willing to listen to broad public opinion? More specific to this moment, are Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) likely to cave to overwhelming public opinion on gun control and reverse their deeply held views that these proposals won’t help and may hurt the country? Or will they stand pat and stay in the good graces of the NRA and the many passionate voters who put a lot of stock in the NRA’s take on events and appraisal of candidates? Especially when they’ve repeatedly been able to dodge public repudiation while operating with total disregard for public opinion on this issue in the past.

So, are we f*cked? Yes and no. In the near term, substantial action seems unlikely and there’s little that can be done about replacing incumbents through the primary process now, but the general election offers an opportunity to propagate change or at least get the ball rolling on something that will likely take several election cycles to sink in. To accomplish this, though, voters need to be more than angry. They need to be informed and alert when it comes to pushing out inattentive incumbents and championing underfunded alternatives. Anger fades when you’re surrounded by distractions, and we all are. Instead, we need to recognize that change on Congress’ timetable and on their terms does nothing for the public unless Congress isn’t concerned about their job security and our collective opinion of them.