The Problem with Congress? Look No Further Than the Gun Debate


With 11 of the 18 Senate Judiciary Committee members benefitting from gun lobby financial contributions, the impartiality of both their opinion and eventual votes is drawn into question.  The Newtown incident has laid bare, as no other has in the past, the inherent conflict lawmakers face regarding their obligation to legislate in the public’s best interest versus special interest pressures that threaten their ability to retain office.  This current debate has morphed into something larger than regulating the gun market.  It provides clear evidence that our Congress needs to fundamentally change the way it operates.

National polling has shown favorability ratings of our Congress to be at an all time low; only 9% of voters holding a favorable opinion with 85% viewing it in a negative light.  How unpopular has that institution become?  Consider that a recently released poll has shown Congress to be less popular than cockroaches, traffic jams, head lice, colonoscopies, Genghis Khan, and other such pleasantries (ref).

To understand the root cause of this historically high level of public dissatisfaction with a Congress that is continually in gridlock on issue after issue, one need look no further than the current gun debate.  No previous event, in this author’s opinion, has laid so bare the inherent conflict between our lawmaker’s obligation to govern in the public’s best interest versus politically powerful special interests that help them retain their job, or threaten their removal from office.  This issue has morphed into something larger than regulating the gun market.  It signals the need for our Congress to fundamentally change the way it operates.

Why Is This One Different

Although there have been many conflicts between governing for public well-being versus special interests, the event that triggered the current gun debate, the Newtown massacre of 20 young children and six staffers in their school, separates itself from others in two fundamental ways.

The first is that there is no doubt what-so-ever about the product that effected the loss of life.  The early part of my career was spent in cancer research where we followed the wars with Big Tobacco.  When claims of cigarette-related health claims were made a counterargument would be whether one could actually prove that cigarettes were the cause of an individual’s cancer.  It took years of evidence building regarding the adverse health effects of smoking and second-hand smoke, while Big Tobacco continued its lobbying efforts in Washington, denying the evidence and engaging in tactics to attract the young including marketing schemes such as Joe Camel (ref), thus building a lifelong customer base of addicted individuals.  We know with certainty that a military-style weapon was the product associated with the deaths of those youngsters.

The second is that television brought the horror of 20 slain youngsters into the living rooms of America and thus moved the matter beyond impersonal death estimates or simple statistics.

In a previous article I detailed numerous policies that are continuing to be pursued despite the often substantial loss of life associated with those policies (ref).  As one example, deregulation/supply-side policy is still being touted on the Right despite the marked increase in poverty its spectacular failure caused, a failure that also resulted in increased estimates of poverty-related death.  But we rarely if ever saw the face of poverty on our TV sets and such afflicted individuals just quietly slipped away while lawmakers put financial industry contributions into their coffers.

For another, during the healthcare debate we as well did not see the estimated 45,000 Americans, including the 2200 military veterans, who were losing their lives each year due to lack of access to essential medical care.   Again, they just quietly slipped away.  Out of sight, out of mind with impersonal statistics not being the material of strong viewing ratings; this while lawmakers accepted record levels of contributions from the healthcare industries during the reform debate.

But the Newtown incident was a media grabber on a national level, one that caught public attention, stoking both fear and outrage.  We all witnessed the grief of the parents, a mourning community, the young faces of those slain, and funeral after funeral carrying the caskets of those many young victims.  Although many more youngsters are killed by gunfire in singular events around this country, those events are often covered by local media.  But those 20 lost young lives in Newtown did not quietly slip away – they were brought front and center into living rooms across the country over television; and they have remained front and center in our national conscience.

Yet our Congress continues to operate the very same way it has with any other policy matter.  The Newtown incident has laid bare, as no other policy matter has before, the inherent conflict our lawmakers face regarding their role in assuring public well-being (especially children) versus powerful special interest influences that carry them to office and help them retain their jobs.

Senate Judiciary Committee: Financial Conflicts of Interest

The Sunlight Foundation has reported that the National Rifle Association (NRA) and other gun rights organizations have played a role in the campaigns of a majority of Senate Judiciary Committee members who recently heard testimony regarding gun violence (ref).  Eleven of the 18 members have received financial support from the gun lobby.  All 8 of the Republicans on the committee have benefited from such financial support and all enjoy a NRA ‘A’ rating.  Three members, all Democrats, were subject to negative independent expenditures from the NRA. Gun control groups like the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence have supported some committee members but at much lower levels with no independent expenditures against any of the lawmakers.

NRA donations and independent expenditures in support of Senate Judiciary Committee members (eight Republicans and one Democrat) have been summarized here.  Ranking member Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) will serve as a case in point.  He was reported to have received at least $17,850 in donations from the NRA PAC since 1998 and received $60,676 in assistance through NRA independent expenditures in his 2010 re-election.  Now consider his opposition to increasing background checks on gun buyers as such would constitute an infringement of Second Amendment rights (ref), parroting a firm position of the NRA.  A recently conducted CBS News/New York Times poll showed Senator Grassley to be out of step not only with the vast majority of American voters, but with an overwhelming majority of those in his own party as well.   Results showed 90% of Americans support such expanded checks for all gun buyers (only 7% opposed), including 89% of Republicans (Grassley’s party), 93% of Democrats and Independents, 93% of gun households, and 85% of those living in a household with a member of the NRA.

Senator Grassley also opposes the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention conducting studies to measure the impact of firearms stating that gun violence is not a disease (ref), again parroting a position of the NRA.  That organization used its lobbying power to rapidly cut off federal funding for such studies through the CDC in the 1990’s when results showed the increased risks of guns in the home (ref).  With gun deaths costing the US billions of dollars each year (ref) with such costs being reflected in increased medical insurance premiums (ref), and with the disproportionate loss of life by gunfire in the US accounting for over 25% of the decreased life expectancy in America (ref), it is folly for the senator to take the position that gun violence does not constitute a public health issue.

Is it just coincidence that his receipt of significant financial contributions from the gun lobby is tied to his reiteration of NRA positions?  One thing is for certain.  His ability to cast an impartial vote or opinion is clearly under question.  In the world of product regulation where I made my living, there is sharp divide between how enforcement and lawmaking operate.  The enforcement end (our regulatory agencies) is completely hands-off regarding special interest contributions – we could not even offer to pick up a lunch (nor would we so offer).  Any outside member of a committee evaluating product safety was required to give disclosure of financial conflicts of interest, and if such existed they could participate in discussion but not in a vote.  I have told regulators that their’s is a job I would never take.  If something went wrong, they would make the trip to Hill to face the wrath of lawmakers who were in receipt of special interest contributions that helped take the teeth out of the enforcement end.  Consider the Teahrt Amendment’s effect on the ability of the ATF to do its job (rather than reference an article, see clip 2, “There Goes the Boom – ATF” for a Daily Show segment on the matter).

And when gerrymandering has resulted in only 35 swing Congressional districts (ref), and with the Citizens United Supreme Court decision opening primaries to substantial special interest contributions (party money stays out of the primaries), lawmakers who do not do the bidding of special interests can face well-funded opponents in primary elections who can remove them from office.  The pressures are considerable.

With lawmakers even debating the need to do something about the mass murder of 20 youngsters, an absurdity undoubtedly tied to political contributions and fears of primary challenges, there has never been such a matter that justifies changing campaign finance law and overturning the Citizens United decision.


Each year in this country we lose 150 children under the age of 10 years to gunfire with many hundreds of others injured (ref), some suffering long-term disability and disfigurement.  In a matter of seconds, in that singular setting in Connecticut, we lost 15% of this nation’s annual total in that age range to a disturbed individual in possession of a weapon designed to inflict mass casualties.  That our Congress is even debating what, if anything, should be done is not only appalling but is contrary to its past behavior regarding child protection.

Consider that since 1974, the year CAPTA was enacted, our Congress has passed well over two dozen federal laws regarding the protection of children (ref).  Yet protecting children from gun violence becomes a matter of political debate.  And it does our international reputation little good that the United States is but one of only three countries (the others being Somalia and South Sudan) that have failed to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (ref), a human rights treaty that protects the rights of children, including protection from violence; a matter our current president has described as being ’embarrassing’.

Nor have I found evidence in this current debate that any of our lawmakers are openly challenging their colleagues regarding special interest conflicts.  Are any of them willing to challenge what has become the accepted norm for doing business on the Hill?

The documentary ‘Independent Intervention’ makes the point that our mainstream media sanitized the real cost of the Iraq war.   If the American public actually saw the carnage inflicted on Iraqi women and children from Shock and Awe (which is what independent journalists provided) rather than the sanitized versions presented on our TV sets of distant bomb blasts, public pressure to end the conflict would have been much greater (especially since the evidence that took us into war never materialized).  And with the military embedding mainstream reporters, those reporters were shown essentially what the military allowed them to see and that was what was brought into our living rooms.

In Edward R. Murrow’s 1958 NTNDA (an excerpt of which will end this article), he made the point that television was evolving into a media to “delude, amuse and insulate us” from the realities of the world in which we live.  His words about historians looking back 50 to 100 years from now were prophetic.  Consider that the CBS news show 60 Minutes was the most popular TV show in America during the 1979/80, 1982/83, 1991/92, 1992/93, and 1993/94 seasons and holds the record for being a top 10 Nielson rated show for 23 consecutive seasons between 1977/78 through 1999/2000 (ref).  Now consider  the content of the top 10 shows for the 2011/12 season (ref):

  1. NBC Monday Night Football
  2. American Idol (had held number 1 for 8 years, a record)
  3. NCIS
  4. American Idol Results Show
  5. Dancing with the Stars
  6. NCIS: Los Angeles
  7. Dancing with the Stars Results Show
  8. The Big Bang Theory
  9. The Voice
  10. Two and a Half Men

The Newtown incident has laid bare, as none other before, the inherent conflict between special interest influences versus the charge that our lawmakers govern in the best interests of our citizenry.  However, there have been many less spectacular instances of policy that claim US lives while lawmakers benefitted from special interest contributions.   It’s just that our media has insulated us from that reality whereas the Newtown incident was brought into our living rooms.  And with a handful of corporations now controlling our media, and news not being a profit-making venture, far too much special interest-driven punditry is taken as news (ref).

The full text of Murrow’s 1958 NTNDA speech can be found here.  An excerpt follows.

“Our history will be what we make it. And if there are any historians about 50 or 100 years from now, and there should be preserved the kinescopes for one week of all three networks, they will there find recorded in black and white, or color, evidence of decadence, escapism and insulation from the realities of the world in which we live. I invite your attention to the television schedules of all networks between the hours of 8 and 11 p.m., Eastern Time. Here you will find only fleeting and spasmodic reference to the fact that this nation is in mortal danger. There are, it is true, occasional informative programs presented in that intellectual ghetto on Sunday afternoons. But during the daily peak viewing periods, television in the main insulates us from the realities of the world in which we live. If this state of affairs continues, we may alter an advertising slogan to read: LOOK NOW, PAY LATER…

“We are currently wealthy, fat, comfortable and complacent. We have currently a built-in allergy to unpleasant or disturbing information. Our mass media reflect this. But unless we get up off our fat surpluses and recognize that television in the main is being used to distract, delude, amuse and insulate us, then television and those who finance it, those who look at it and those who work at it, may see a totally different picture too late.”