Nationally syndicated columnist and political pundit E.J. Dionne on Wednesday called the U.S. Senate’s inability to pass, by a simple majority, legislation to require background checks for gun purchases “profoundly anti- and unconstitutional.”
Dionne, a Washington Post Writers Group member whose column appears in The Buffalo News, was the guest speaker for a 125th-anniversary celebration lecture sponsored by Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church.
The event was held in the 710 Main Theatre, formerly Studio Arena Theatre, in downtown Buffalo. It was sponsored by The News and the Russell J. Jandoli School of Journalism and Mass Communication at St. Bonaventure University.
“There is not a word in the Constitution that says it takes 60 votes to pass normal legislation,” said Dionne who, during a question-and-answer session, was goaded into weighing in on Wednesday’s 54-46 vote by the Senate on a proposal to extend background checks to gun shows and to online purchases of firearms.
“The Constitution is very clear where it takes supermajorities. It takes supermajorities to ratify treaties, to amend the Constitution of the United States. It does not take supermajorities to pass legislation,” Dionne said.
“When you win 54 to 46, it’s really odd that the headline says you lost, and that’s what we’ve done with the abuse of the filibuster,” he added.
The author of “Our Divided Political Heart,” an examination of the 2012 presidential election campaign, was invited to speak on how Americans deal with the tension between two core values, which are affinity toward individualism and reverence for community. As a result of that tension, the self-portrait that Americans create is often contradictory, Dionne said.
“In our culture and our movies and our books and our music, we always seem to be celebrating conflicting values. Is our country better personified by the great community spirit of Jimmy Stewart in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ or by the rogue individualism of Clint Eastwood in ‘Dirty Harry?’ ” Dionne said.
“Does Woody Guthrie’s ‘This Land Is Your Land’ or Frank Sinatra’s ‘My Way’ speak more readily to who we are?”
Despite the contradictions he explores, Dionne described his book as hopeful about the country’s future.
“I think this classic American balance between individualism and community, and also between the government and the market, and between the public and the private – this balance has gotten us out of scrapes before and it can do so again,” Dionne said.
Regarding Wednesday’s Senate vote, the Harvard University graduate and Rhodes Scholar noted that there are real problems with the representative nature of Congress because of gerrymandering in the House of Representatives and the overrepresentation of predominantly rural states in the Senate.
“When our republic started, the ratio between the smallest and largest states, the population, was 13-to-1. It’s now around 68- or 70-to-1. There’s just something wrong with that,” Dionee said.
“Now I love the Dakotas, but the notion that North and South Dakota have the same number of votes in the Senate as California, there is something peculiar about that.”