Hannah Howroyd ’13
Traveling through New Jersey by way of Amtrak is a wasteland. Anyone who has taken the train from Connecticut to Washington, DC can attest to this fact. Yet while I was traveling last December, mile after mile of graffiti-stained junkyards, industrial plants, and warehouses whose chipped paint hasn’t seen a new coat since the railway’s inception, I noticed one salient commonality, one constant amid the cacophonous vista from CT to NY to NJ to PA to DE to MD to DC: the American flag flying at half-mast. Less than a week earlier had been one of the most startling, jolting, and preventable losses my state and my country had witnessed. Yet there, looking out my train window, the half-masted flag stood as a visible, tangible testament to a nation united. Yes, it may have been the obligatory Bruce Springsteen blaring through my headphones that put me in an ultra-patriotic mood, but I am sure it was something deeper. It was the concept of solidarity. Of common loss. Not of Republican or Democrat, just but of one singular American sentiment.
Now fast-forward from December to April. Initial aftershock and emotion amongst the American people further translated to a continued call for common sense gun controls and regulations. 90—yes, 90—percent of Americans backed universal background checks as part of the bipartisan Manchin-Toomey bill. However, the bill’s failure was a testament to the disparaging influence of the NRA, the nation’s top special-interest lobby.
The legislative process we’ve come to know and love in the Land of the Free has become so convoluted, so encumbered by special interest that it is unfair to in full-faith call it democratic. How can one constituent phone call and letter be comparable to millions of dollars and lobbyist clout thrown into the ring each year by special interest? Modern American politics—as this week’s Senate rejection further exemplified—can increasingly be seen as a check on the will and voice of the American people.
If you think I’m blowing the NRA’s role in the Senate’s rejection of the bill out of proportion, I’ll let the facts do the talking. $3.01million—the amount of reported NRA expenditures in 2012 on federal lobbying efforts. $1.5million—the reported total the NRA spends on campaign and PAC contributions. $19million—the reported total of money spent by the NRA on outside spending to influence elections. And these figures are for 2012 alone. Not convinced? Let’s look some more cold-hard facts. As the Chicago Tribune reports, “Six Republicans — Orrin Hatch, Mitch McConnell, Jeff Sessions, Richard Shelby, Mike Crapo and Chuck Grassley — who voted for universal background checks in 1999, when the NRA supported them, voted against background checks this week, now that the NRA opposes them.” That my friends is a textbook definition of flip-flopping.
The notion of public service is all but lost on many in Congress that take the oath term-in and term-out. The thirst for re-election at any coast, a de facto nature of the political beast, trumps the irrefutable needs of the common American. When will elected officials have the courage, back-bone, and principle to stand up for their constituents not only when favorable, but in adversity to the choke-hold lobbies and interests? These are the questions I am dealing with when I look at my faith in the US Senate.
The sad thing is, they are getting away with it. Just today Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) had the gall to say, “We kept hearing, again and again, that ninety per cent of the American people wanted us to vote a certain way. Well, at the end of the day, we decided that we weren’t going to cave in to that kind of special-interest group…If the American people think that just because they voted us into office and pay our salaries, benefits, and pensions, we are somehow obliged to listen to them, they are sorely mistaken.”
How is it that one can vehemently vote nay on such sensible and popular safety measures as universal background checks? How can one assuredly bow to the pressures of the NRA while looking into eyes of the families of Newtown sitting in the Senate Gallery? Our children may not be of legal age to cast a vote for your re-election, but does this mean that their welfare goes by the wayside? Does their safety matter less in an age of modern politics in which political solvency is tied inherently to special interest?
Political resilience, in my view, comes not from a politician’s padded campaign contributions, but from the courage to stand with the American people in the face of special interest. That being said, kudos to the four Republican lawmakers—Sen. John McCain (AZ), Sen. Mark Kirk (IL), Sen. Susanne Collins (ME), and Sen. Pat Toomey (PA)—that broke traditional ranks to side with the 90%. It is paradoxical to think that courage in the modern political definition would pertain to public service being accountable to the public (what an abstract idea), but that is where it dishearteningly stands.
I, and ninety percent of my fellow Americans agree, that universal background checks are common-sense legislation. The rejection of the Manchin-Toomey bill is not the end of the battle on gun control by any means. However, what it shows is the negligence of the Senate on the prioritization of the will of the American people. It is increasingly clear that for necessary gun reform to occur, there needs to be a push for accountability between the representative and the voter. My mother always tells me that just because I’m loud doesn’t mean I’m right. Well, we need to remind the elected official that it is the true voice of Americans, not the presently louder one of special interest that has the final say.
The featured cartoon was originally published in US News and World Report