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Deserving a vote
Feb 13, 2013 - By Steven R. Peck
Obama framed the theater around guns, but it applies to much more in Congress
Time is the only teller, ultimately, of what part or parts of a president's State of the Union Address will live on -- if any. That test has now started with the 2013 "SOTU" delivered Tuesday night by President Barack Obama.
The day after, however, many parts of the speech remain fresh in the public mind, not yet eroded by the years. The speech had elements of politics, policy, philosophy and theater.
First, the theater. Rarely in any modern SOTU has there been an occasion to match when the president spoke of the national debate over firearms. With several bills either being introduced or contemplated in Congress to tighten gun regulations, Obama said each one of them "deserves a vote" in Congress. Introducing the families of gunshot victims, he said they "deserve a vote."
Pointing out former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, herself a miraculous survivor of an assassination attempt, the president said "she deserves a vote."
Shifting into his familiar "pulpit mode," the president paused as applause in the room grew, then mentioned the names of some of the cities or places where mass shootings have occurred in recent years. Newton. Virginia Tech. Aurora, Oak Creek and more. They "deserve a vote."
As cameras cut to the members of the balcony audience holding pictures of loved ones, some wiping away tears, chants of "vote, vote, vote" pealed across the House chamber.
"They deserve a vote," the president said again, and then repeated twice more amid the din.
Notice that he didn't say these laws "must be passed," or "ought to be passed." He said they deserve a vote. Most likely he chose that phrase because he realizes that most of them -- perhaps all of them -- cannot and will not pass Congress. They may "deserve a vote," but that vote will be "no."
No amount of SOTU theatricality is going to change that fact. But even getting to the vote stage in Congress would be a demonstration that the highest law-making body in the land at least is addressing the issue, whether it be to approve or disallow new laws.
That's a big part of why the response to "they deserve a vote" was so intense Tuesday night. It was more than about gun laws. It was about getting down to business.
Too often in recent years it seems as if Congress works its hardest to avoid voting on major issues. President George W. Bush practically begged for "an up or down vote" on his judicial or cabinet-level appointments that languished, untouched. The U.S. Senate hasn't been able to pass a federal budget in years. The time-swallowing, bill-killing filibuster has been used more often against President Obama than against his five predecessors combined.
The practical American mind boggles at this demonstration from the Capitol. One would hope that the consciences of the members eventually would propel them to do something rather than devote so much of their careers and lives trying to make sure nothing gets done.
For now, the "deserves a vote" portion of Obama's speech has emerged as its most talked-about portion. There is a feeling, however, that the president could have whipped up an almost equal response had he asked for a vote on a piece of energy policy or immigration policy or health care policy. They lack the added emotion left over from the Newtown shootings, but the underlying sentiment probably isn't that much different.
Lots of things "deserve a vote" -- yes or no. Our Congress, and our country, appear increasingly impotent and absurd by never seeming to get around to the job.