Some thoughts concerning the bipartisan framework on gun control…

It appears that the United States Senate, in a rare bit of bipartisan effort, has cobbled together a framework for new gun control laws. As one of those people who will be stuck complying with whatever goofy laws the state and federal government come up, I have some thoughts on the issue. I’ll try to get through them in some kind of logical order.

I think most people who know me will be a bit surprised as they get through (most of) the rundown:

  • Clarify who must register as a licensed firearms dealer. This feels like a bit of a no-brainer. Clarifying current regulations defining who’s “engaged in the business of selling firearms” should make it easier to understand exactly what that phrase means and who needs to be in compliance in order to conduct that business appropriately.
  • Enhanced penalties for straw purchases. If you knowingly and intentionally purchase a firearm with the intention of reselling or otherwise giving it to someone who is legally prohibited from owning one, you ought to have the book thrown at you. I have no idea what percentage of total sales are straw purchases, but each one of them is an insult to every one of us who jumps through all the hoops in order to stay in compliance.
  • Closing the “boyfriend loophole.” Makes sense. If you’ve been convicted of abuse against your domestic partner – whether married, living together, or in a “serious dating relationship” – your propensity to violence or poor decision making is documented and the state therefore has a vested interest in limiting your ability to escalate that violence.
  • Increased mental health funding. Sure. Is anyone out there really saying that we don’t need to improve access to mental health in this country? I’m not going to turn this post into a brief history of mental health failures over the last century, but getting past the idea that “they’re nuts and there’s nothing we can do about it” is probably a good idea.
  • Enhanced school security. This one feels like something of a red herring. School shootings and “mass shootings” as a whole grab the headlines, but they make up a vanishingly small portion of overall violence in which a perpetrator uses a firearm. I mean sure, more security for soft targets is fine, but you’ll get more bang for your buck in getting people who commit crimes using a firearm off the streets and keeping them there.
  • Enhanced background checks for buyers between 18 and 21. Personally, if we’re going to make gun owners a suspect class, I’d say go all the way back and make sure the review includes juvenile records as well. Walking in with a clean record on your 18th birthday shouldn’t count for more than being a little felon as a minor.

Of course, there’s one bit of this proposed framework, that I’ll be watching with intense interest: Expanding red flag laws.

In Maryland, our red flag law takes the form of the Extreme Risk Protection Order and allows a spouse, domestic partner, dating/romantic partner, relative, law enforcement officer, or medical professional to potation the court to require an individual to surrender firearms and ammunition to the state and to refrain from purchasing new ones. It further provides the court with the ability to refer the individual for emergency mental health evaluation. Some states are more or less restrictive on who can waive the red flag to trigger this process.

It sounds eminently reasonable on its face, but feels replete with opportunities to be abused – by those who might file for an ERPO illegitimately, by an overzealous judiciary, and by the government agency that can continue to hold an individual’s firearms days and weeks after the ERPO has expired or been rescinded.

Unlike some, I don’t think these red flag laws necessarily violate any kind of due process expectation on their face. I do expect, however, that they need to be very strictly constructed and closely overseen in order to prevent them from slipping towards a scenario where those subject to an ERPO find themselves like those Americans who were incorrectly placed on government “no fly” lists with no recourse besides a faceless, shrugging, government bureaucracy.

Personally, if I were king for the day and I wanted to get after gun violence, I’d spend my time chasing better legislation to put violent offenders in the deepest, darkest hole that local and state government and the U.S. Bureau of Prisons could find. Commit a crime with a firearm and the whole world ought to fall down on your head. Instead, we continue to usher these individuals into the revolving door of arrest, incarceration, release, wash, rinse, and repeat… but that’s not the story that’s going to ever lead the headlines and captivate public attention, so we are where we are.

Freebooters…

The filibuster has a long and storied history as a delaying tactic employed by members of the minority party in U.S. Senate. In its most simple form, the filibuster means the minority can prolong or delay a vote as long as they can keep a solid block of 41 senators behind the effort.

The problem isn’t really the filibuster in and of itself. It’s the fact that since the 1970s, the threat of a filibuster has been enough to derail legislation. Since then, all a senator has had to do is signal their intent to filibuster and the majority leader most often opts not to bring the bill to the floor. It wasn’t always thus. 

Rather than eliminate the filibuster – and the need to get to 60 senators to invoke cloture – simply fall back on the more historic rules of the Senate. If the minority party, a small segment of senators, or even an individual wants to block legislation, go back in time to when they had to earn it. Make the bastards hold the floor. Make them talk until their exhausted. Don’t let them eat. Don’t let them drink. Don’t let them sleep. Make them grind the machinery of state to a halt right there in the chamber with the cameras on them. Make them stay in session on Fridays and over the weekend. If they want to filibuster, make these octogenarian asshats do the work.

Right now, the minority party can weaponize the filibuster and the majority just stands around and takes it… but the majority can weaponize the rules and procedures of the Senate just as easily. Plus, taking the filibuster back to the future is the far more poetic option than throwing it over and turning the Senate into a smaller, more elderly, simple majority needing version than the House. 

Make the Filibuster Painful Again. That’s Ol’ Doc Tharp’s prescription. 

Pure partisan fuckery…

I was born and raised in the mountains of Western Maryland. There are certain inevitable assumptions made when someone describes himself like that, I suppose.  I might have spent my childhood ripping and running on Squirrel Neck Road, but that doesn’t mean I feel any need to present myself to the world as some kind of backwoods yokel Gomer. I didn’t then and I don’t now. 

Based on a lot of social and demographic factors, I should probably be expected to weigh in heavily against the nomination of Ketanji Brown Jackson to fill a vacant seat on the U.S. Supreme Court. It’s an almost mortal lock that I won’t agree with how she interprets the law or the opinions she would write as a Justice. 

The thing is, none of that really matters. The simple fact is Judge Jackson is incredibly well qualified for the job. Whether her judicial philosophy conforms to the pleasure of Joe Biden, or Jeff Tharp, or Josh Hawley isn’t particularly relevant outside the spectacle of a confirmation fight in the halls of the U.S. Senate.

Barring the discovery of some truly monumental skeleton lurking in her closet, the Senate should confirm her nomination and put her on the Court. To claim otherwise is the kind of pure partisan fuckery of which we’ve already seen far too much.

Gordon Gekko versus the do-gooder Senators…

The Thrift Savings Plan (hereafter TSP) is billed as the world’s largest defined contribution retirement plan. Having in excess of $700 billion of assets under management, I’m sure it makes a very tempting target for politicians looking for some new and interesting way to make their mark or get their name in the papers.

Most recently, Senators Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Alex Padilla (D-CA), Ben Ray Lujan (D-NM), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Tim Kaine (D-VA), and Cory Booker (D-NJ), have sent a letter of interest to TSP’s managing board encouraging them to increase the presence of “racially, ethnically, and gender diverse asset managers” overseeing this giant pot of money.

That’s fine, I suppose, if what you’re into is some kind of feel good, hold hands, and sing along kind of moment. When it comes to TSP, though, the only thing I care about is that the fund managers are the very best money makers that can be found for the job. I want the people in charge of growing my principal retirement account to be relentless and absolutely ruthless in finding better returns. It’s simply never occurred to me to care whether they also happen to be black, white, brown, yellow, straight, bi, gay, men, women, or other.

However admirable the above listed senators believe their goals may be, when it comes to managing a vast portfolio for millions of current and future retirees, the old adage is true – if it doesn’t make dollars, it doesn’t make sense. As such, I’d encourage these distinguished members of the US Senate to take their genuine imitation do-gooder tendencies and pandering elsewhere.

Maybe I should just run for Congress. From the sounds of it, getting your jollies by telling other people how to live their lives or what they’re supposed to care about is a far better way to feather your nest anyway.

The commission…

Following major events in our political life, the United States has a long history of setting up national commissions to conduct investigations and issue authoritative reports outlining key facts and findings. The most familiar of those are probably the 9/11 Commission or Warren Commission. For those of us of a careening into middle age, we may even have vague childhood memories of the Tower Commission.

In general, these bipartisan commissions, armed with subpoena power and an army of staff investigators, are given the charge of uncovering exactly what happened during the moments leading up to and following key historical events or moments of great controversy. 

Establishing a commission to investigate the circumstances surrounding the Capital Insurrection of 2021 should be a no brainer. I suppose it is a no brainer for anyone who’s idea of acceptable political activity doesn’t including storming and attempting to occupy the seat of government in an effort to overturn a lawful election.

In what I can only consider a truly bizarre turn of events, I find myself agreeing with Speaker Pelosi in that voting against establishing a commission fully empowered to investigate the facts and details of what drove insurrectionists into the halls of the Capitol and to uncover who gave them leadership, aid, and comfort, would be an unmistakable, and unforgivable, act of personal cowardice.

I’d like to think House and Senate Republicans might at some point display the barest hint of possessing a spine… and yet I expect to see them inexplicably doubling down on fervently licking the boots of the failed candidate who led them to wrack and ruin.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Expectations. Facebook is filled with people who can’t wait for this year to be over. As if they expect someone to wave a magic wand and January 1, 2021 will magically recreate the world as it was in December 2019 – The before time.  2020 wasn’t great for most people. I get it.  Will 2021 be better? Maybe. Maybe not. It will simply be different. Spending weeks and months believing it’s going to be the pinnacle of good times, or even in any significant way different than today feels, in a word, delusional.

2. Republicans. Every idiot coming out of the woodwork to cry “fake news” or “stolen election” is systematically working to suppress the number of Republicans who come out to vote in the Georgia special election for two open Senate seats. If you’re a Republican and not laser focused on holding a firewall in the Senate, you’re letting your teenaged girl-like infatuation with one person get in the way of seeing the whole board. You can stan Donald Trump as much as you want, but he lost. Period. We’ve got a chance to save the Senate and through that body temper the more extreme legislation being pushed from the extreme left wing of the Democratic Party. If you’d rather litigate history than get suited up for that fight, honestly, I have no idea what you’re doing here other than wasting your damned time.

3. Pay freeze. I see that the White House has joined the Senate in calling for an FY21 pay freeze for federal employees. Trump, Obama, Republican, Democrat. Party doesn’t matter as they’re both happy to implement pay freezes during their tenures in office. In a year that saw a $2.2 trillion COVID-19 bailout and individual cash payments of up to $1,200 per person (if you didn’t have the audacity to sell a property in 2019 and be ranked in the 1% for the 15 minutes between closing the sale and paying off the mortgage), pleading governmental poverty feels like a stretch… especially when the original proposal called for an already austere 1% increase and the federal government (despite the virus) is on track to receive a near-record amount of tax payments.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Apologists. Several times this week, I listened to the chattering classes on television solemnly opine that “America is no longer seen as a shining city.’” They’ve been trying to sell that story for so long now that I think they’re starting to believe their own hype. While it’s true that the United States isn’t the Guevaraist paradise they’d seem to like, there are still gobs of people knocking down the door to get here, so they can get the fuck out of here with that fuckery.

2. The popular vote. The national popular vote means exactly nothing when it comes to electing a President of the United States. The “abolish the Electoral College” crowd – including many so-called intellectuals who are certainly smart enough to understand the founder’s logic in removing the election of the nation’s chief magistrate from the hands of a simple majority – is out in force on Twitter this week. They’re joined, increasingly, by a sub-group who want to abolish the concept of having two senators for each state in favor of (if I understand their generally disjointed argument) allocating senators by population in the same way seats in the House of Representatives is allocated. Personally, I like the notion that the power of “the people’s representatives” in the House is checked by the interests of the states in the Senate, that together as a Congress, they check the power of the Executive Branch and the Courts, and that the Court checks the powers of the other two branches. That the machinery of government is complex is a feature, not a flaw. I have far more faith in the operational framework built during the Constitutional Convention than I do in whatever goofy “improvements” the collective brilliance a bunch Twitterers manage to come up with.

3. Pollsters. If we’re going to continue to report pre-election polling, we’re going to have to come up with a way to make the tale they’re telling more than a wild ass guess about what might happen. For months, the favored narrative was of a “blue wave” that would give Joe Biden a legendary victory and carry huge numbers of new Democrats into Congress. As I write this, it’s entirely possible that the former vice president may get his shot at the big chair, but his election doesn’t appear to come with coattails. His party is on track to lose seats in the House and while the Senate remains a toss-up. It’s entirely possible that Democrats will seize all the levers of power, but let’s not pretend it shows some kind of grand national realignment. If it happens, it’s more a blue dribble than a blue wave.

On being final…

It will come as a surprise to no one who really knows me that I stayed as far away from math and science as possible during my four years as an undergrad. I could muddle through the work and scrape through with C’s, but I had no aptitude for it, no talent. Turn me loose in Dunkle Hall for History of Whatever or Guild for political science and I was in my element.

Increasingly it feels like many of the old maximums of political science I learned 20+ years ago don’t really apply to the study of politics in 21st century America. Despite the formal education and a few decades of reading I find myself feeling like a stranger in a strange land more and more often.

Still, though, some of the old truisms were true for a reason. While lecturing on the role of the Judiciary, Dr. Simpson was fond of reminding us that “the Supreme Court isn’t final because they’re right – They’re right because they’re final.” It’s one of those deeper truths wrapped in a easy to understand package. For good or bad, short of amending the Constitution, there’s simply no mechanism to allow for appeal beyond the Supreme Court.

Listning to the talking heads today, many of them seem to forget that the same is true when the Senate sits as a court of impeachment. That body has sweeping latitude to set the terms of the trial and the outcome belongs to them alone to decide. What the House thinks, or the president thinks, or what the latest polls show is a bit of interesting, but not particularly relevant detail.

In cases of impeachment, the Senate is right simply by virtue of being final. If you don’t like the results, if you don’t like how you’re being represented in this republic of ours, then the onus is on you to secure different representation at the ballot box… but running around whimpering that “the Senate got it wrong” makes you sound like a schmuck.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Nextdoor. My neighborhood is one of many that have elected to use the Nextdoor website and app to take nosy-neighborness to the next level. The current conversation that seem to be monopolizing everyone’s time is focused on barking dogs, the causes, and what can be done about it. Participants are divided into two broad camps by this discussion. Without spending time recounting the dozens of posts, I fall pretty firmly into the camp that says that even though the lots here are large, we do, in fact, live in a neighborhood. That means we all have to endure a certain amount of fuckery we find personally obnoxious from neighbors (and their dogs). Yes, I’ve heard the occasional barking dog – and from time to time, mine have contributed to the cacophony. In the grand scheme of obnoxious shit neighbors do, the dogs aren’t even close to the top.

2. The House of Representatives. A few weeks ago, at least according to leaders in the House, the President of the United States represented a clear and present danger to the republic. Hearings had to be conducted and a vote held with all possible haste. Since then, though, the leaders of the House have spent weeks sitting with their collective thumbs up their own asses while refusing to deliver the charging documents to the Senate. Since they seem to be in no rush to get the trial underway, I can only assume House leaders no longer think President Trump is a pressing threat to the country. If he were, surely they would have pressed for a trial to go forward as quickly as possible… unless, of course, these fearless leaders of the House are more interested in political theater than actually standing upon their dire warnings for the future… and dealing with the fallout from their actions.

3. Doing for others. I’m generally open to lending a hand, or taking on a project, or generally at least attempting to make myself helpful. What I have consistently resented the hell out of over the course of my career are the things that land on my desk that could have been done by someone else faster or with less explanation required than pushing it over to me with a laundry list of instructions. I’ll be the first to admit I don’t know the details of everyone’s workload, but I’m willing to bet that if I walked the halls I’d be hard pressed to find someone with more ash and trash cluttering their inbox than I’ve had this week. The fact that so much of it is stuck there by “trusted professionals” who could handle it themselves isn’t surprising, but it is annoying as hell.

What I learned this week…

Judging from the ill-informed eruptions across social media, the consensus seems to be that impeachment by the House of Representatives is precisely equal to removal from office. That, of course, is not true and I can only assume that the cheering masses on Twitter and Facebook have now discovered that impeachment is the first step in a two step process outlined by the Constitution for removing an elected official from public office.

So, what did I learn this week? Basically that despite the best efforts I made many years ago and that a veritable army of civics teachers are currently making, the American public is woefully uninformed about how their system of government is supposed to operate. I refer them to the Constitution. I mean it’s the basic operator’s manual, so go ahead and start there and then we can assign some more detailed reading.