Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley used a White House meeting last week to explain to President Donald Trump the panel’s role in getting a consensus and moving legislation dealing with gun violence and school shootings.
But before the Iowa Republican could finish, Trump pivoted right back to negotiating provisions about age restrictions for gun purchases, a proposal championed by two senators who aren’t on the committee, Pennsylvania Republican Patrick J. Toomey and West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin III.
“You’re going to be a great help. Thanks, Chuck,” Trump said. “I’d just like to ask Joe and Pat, what are you doing about the 18 to 21?”
The exchange last Wednesday was one of many signs that the gun control debate appears likely to follow the same path in the Senate as major efforts on immigration last month and health care last year — one that essentially bypasses the committee of jurisdiction and instead plays out on the floor after some closed-door negotiations, with little time for lawmakers to read or digest the fine print.
Senators say the process is the result of an institutional shift, over many years and under different parties, that concentrates power in leadership offices to the detriment of committees that used to hammer out policy details and work out disputes before make-or-break votes on the floor. The pattern applies particularly to the most politically sensitive issues, as both parties angle for an advantage in the 2018 elections with majority control at stake.
Judiciary Committee Democrats voiced concern last week that the gun issue was one example of a panel gone missing in action on the major topics where it should be leading — in addition to issues such as Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and immigration. They urged Grassley to seize back control.
Illinois Sen. Richard J. Durbin, who has stressed these points for weeks, said Thursday that the committee held three hearings and a robust markup on legislation after 20 children and six adults were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2013.
In the wake of the Parkland, Florida, school shooting that killed 17 on Feb. 14 and sparked upward of 10 proposals discussed at the White House, Durbin said, “This committee today is silent when it comes to legislative activity.”