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Special interests win on background checks

WASHINGTON – The procedural defeat in the Senate of gun control, or gun safety, depending on your preference, probably takes the issue off the agenda for this Congress. It also draws the Obama administration dramatically closer into lame-duck status – at least until a new Congress is seated 20 long months from now.

The bipartisan national background checks legislation failed because an overwhelming majority of senators from small rural states supported a filibuster, which required 60 votes to break.

The filibuster process, where a minority of senators can block a floor vote, is about two centuries old. This is likely a touchy moment to mention it, but the Senate was rigged this way to prevent what the founders feared could be a “tyranny of the majority.” Now these high hurdles have Godzillas supporting them in the form of irresistible interest groups like the National Rifle Association and the Gun Owners of America, sometimes backed by secret money and shadowy lobbying networks.

The Senate vote puts the big money loosed by the Supreme Court's recent decisions – that give cold cash the virtue of free speech and personhood – in virtual command of everything in this town. The District of Columbia is filthy rich, growing and gentrified.

There is a push-back available. That would be a constitutional amendment repealing the 2010 Supreme Court Citizens United decision. That 5-4 ruling unhinges a century's worth of campaign finance laws, and makes a mockery of the entire enforcement mechanism.

Melanie Sloan, of Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington, noted last week that neither Attorney General Eric Holder nor the Securities and Exchange Commission has brought any actions against “dark money” corporate political groups. Nor is Obama's SEC supporting stockholder demands that corporations disclose how they are spending political money.

All politics being local, there is so far no interest at all shown by either U.S. senator from New York or any of the three Western New York House members in any of the nine bills introduced that overturn the destructive effects of Citizens United. Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, D-Fairport, is co-sponsor of two bills.

The three Senate bills, one by Max Baucus, D-Mont., and two by Bernie Sanders, I,D-Vt., have no cosponsors. Same for the two bills filed by Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, three months ago.

The slack interest in democratic reform by the Democratic incumbency, as well as by Republicans, reflects President Obama's delicate weather vane. In 2010, Obama warned that Citizens United would “open the floodgates to special interests.” He quickly joined the special interests, creating a super PAC for his re-election and took corporate money to finance last January's inaugural gala and six-figure gifts for his new “grass-roots” advocacy drive.

There is a national group pushing hard against Citizens United,, with lay coordinators across the state and the country. Its Buffalo leader, Suzanne Montalalou, says she's working to build a coalition that includes not just progressives, but also libertarians, tea party advocates and Republicans who are sick and tired of money politics.

Special interests can't entirely explain why Obama was unable to pass a background check bill that polls showed 86 percent of the people wanted. Passing controversial bills requires personal engagement with members of Congress, and Obama does not engage. The president's opting instead for staged grandstanding and polarizing intensifies opposition.

Finally, the Republican and Democratic leaders of the Senate again showed their disdain for the American people by drafting the legislation in near secrecy and refusing to hold exhaustive public hearings that might have lessened the popular distrust of Washington, which is almost pandemic.