WASHINGTON – Monday was the first anniversary of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando that left 49 dead. Saturday will be the second anniversary of the church shooting in Charleston, S.C., where nine were murdered at Bible study.
In between these two somber remembrances, House Republicans will be commemorating the occasion in their own way: They will begin work relaxing restrictions on firearm silencers – thereby making it easier for shooters to shoot without being noticed.
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To this injury, the legislators add insult with the bill’s name: a provision of the “Sportsmen’s Heritage and Recreational Enhancement Act” called the “Hearing Protection Act” – as if it were subsidizing earplugs. That’s like calling legislation that expands the availability of machine guns the “Carpal Tunnel Protection Act” because it spares would-be shooters the repetitive motion of trigger pulling.
With all the hullabaloo over Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the Russia scandal and President Donald Trump’s latest tweets, few are likely to notice when the bill gets a hearing Wednesday before a House natural resources subcommittee. And that’s the point. Trump, as candidate and president, has been a weapon of mass distraction.
Admittedly, nobody would wish on himself the kind of distractions Trump has been generating lately. The inquiries into his and his aides’ Russia ties and his firing of FBI Director James Comey could ultimately end his presidency. But though these are consequential and necessary matters – and though there’s no way to avoid attention going to the many other bizarre happenings in Trump world – these inevitably distract from serious matters that, in any normal time, would dominate headlines.
As the Comey craze and Sessions obsession entertain the nation, Senate Republican leaders have used the diversion to advance Trumpcare legislation in the shadows.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) invoked “Rule XIV,” a procedure that allows legislation to skip committees and go directly to the floor. McConnell is hoping to rush the health-care bill to a vote before the July 4 recess, and GOP senators working on the Senate legislation aren’t even sharing the specifics with their Republican colleagues.
The news outlet Axios this week reported that Senate Republicans don’t plan to divulge the details of their legislation publicly. “We aren’t stupid,” one senior GOP aide told Axios. No, they aren’t. And their subterfuge is working. Unnoticed by most, Senate Republicans believe they have cobbled together the 50 votes necessary to repeal Obamacare.
On the very day that Comey testified before the Senate, the House passed legislation largely repealing the Dodd-Frank financial reforms implemented after the 2008 crash. The bill would, among other things, remove the requirement that retirement advisers put their customers’ interests before their own. The House on Tuesday afternoon took up another controversial matter under cover of the Sessions distraction: As the attorney general testified in the Senate, the House voted along party lines to require a Social Security number for people to get Obamacare benefits. It is meant to block illegal immigrants from accessing health-care benefits. Opponents say it would also deny medical care for many newborn babies who are citizens.
The Comey contretemps has also obscured splits between mainstream and conservative Republicans that have made a budget resolution unlikely. House Republicans are moving on with appropriations legislation for 2018 without a budget. This split could jeopardize tax reform and increase the likelihood of a government shutdown or default later this year.
It’s difficult to focus on budget nuances, though, when Trump has turned the White House into a circus. In addition to the Comey and Sessions performances, there is also the clown show: At this week’s Cabinet meeting, nearly all of Trump’s Cabinet members offered praise for their boss. There were, in all, 46 occurrences of “thank you,” 32 of “great,” 15 of “honor” and seven of “privilege” as they extolled Trump and his virtues: “Just the greatest privilege of my life. … My hat’s off to you. … What an incredible honor. Thank you for the opportunity and the blessing that you’ve given us to serve your agenda.”
As we gape in astonishment at a president receiving tributes from his coterie – like a strongman from his junta – Americans might find it difficult to concentrate on an equally astonishing thing happening this week: that House “hearing protection” bill, which would end nearly a century of strict regulation of silencers and thwart the new gunfire-detection technology cities use to fight crime.
It’s no small irony that those trying to make silencers more available are relying on noise – the din of Trump’s antics and the clatter of the Russia probes – so that most Americans don’t hear what’s happening until it’s too late.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.