Tapped: The Prospect Group Blog

Congressional Commission Moves Toward Privatization of VA

The Commission on Care—a congressionally mandated federal body tasked with evaluating alleged shortcomings at the Veterans Health Administration (VHA)—is deliberating largely behind closed doors and, according to sources close to the deliberations, may have a heavy bias towards privatization. This is ironic because one of the critiques against the VHA has been its purported lack of transparency. The commission's pro-privatization tilt also worries veterans health advocates who point to research documenting that private health-care providers are not performing as well as the VHA on many measures critical to veterans.

Although some portions of the Commission’s meetings are open to the public, most of its internal deliberations are closed. The commission holds all of its meetings in Washington, D.C., making it impossible for veterans who don’t have the money to fly to the capital to be heard and to observe. Of course, veterans may send in comments to the Commission, but it’s impossible to know how much influence those will have.  This in spite of the fact that the VHA is the largest health-care system in the United States, serving eight million veterans—intensifying public interest in the commission’s deliberations.

The commission did release an interim report, as required by the 2014 law that mandated its creation. The Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act, passed in the wake of public concern over alleged treatment delays at VA hospitals around the country, charged the commission with examining how the VA should best locate, organize, and deliver its veterans health-care services.

Yet that report identified certain practices that are built in to any government program, such as the federal personnel system, as detrimental to the VA. Among other findings, the Interim Report concluded that one of the primary challenges facing the VHA is meeting the “standards governing health care in the private sector,” a critique with a distinctly conservative ring.

The commission’s explicit charge is “to examine strategically how best to organize the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), locate health resources, and deliver health care to veterans during the next 20 years.” Some veterans’ health-care advocates who have attended the commission’s open sessions say they see signs that influential commission members are pushing for privatization of at least some VHA services. “There seems to a consensus among most of the commission members that some privatization should occur with some members recommending total privatization. It’s clear that a number of the members of the commission—particularly those who come from private sector health-care institutions—have little experience with or knowledge of the unique problems of veterans,” commented one veterans’ health advocate who has attended most of the open sessions and has talked with commission members and staff. 

“The mind set seems to be that the Commission should ‘split the difference’ between those who are determined to hand over services to private sector providers and those who believe veterans are best served if the VA is strengthened and continues to deliver comprehensive services,” said another veterans’ advocate who also asked not to be identified. “Splitting the difference would compromise a high-quality integrated health-care model without saving any money.” 

The subtext of the commission’s interim report and of its open meetings appears to be that the VHA is fundamentally broken, and that private sector health-care is both superior to VHA care and can handle an influx of veterans with complex medical and psychological problems. Yet a 2014 Rand study of veterans’ mental health care explicitly tackled the question of whether the private sector healthcare system was “ready to serve” the needs of veterans. The answer was no.

The commission’s final recommendations are not due until later this year. The big question now is whether the commission will base its recommendations on empirical research, such as the findings of the Rand study, or on the talking points of the VA’s conservative critics on Capitol Hill.

And check out Suzanne Gordon's in-depth take on the Veterans Health Administration's strong performance in the face of right-wing attacks from our Fall 2015 issue. 

The Times’s Sloppy Reporting on Sanders and Veterans Health

On Sunday, The New York Times published a wildly misleading front-page story titled, “Faith in Agency Clouded Bernie Sanders’ V.A. Response.”

The gist of the piece was that Sanders, blinded by his friendliness to government agencies, did not acknowledge the VA scandal of long wait times for services until very late in the game. But read far enough into the detail of the story and the headline is not documented at all—quite the opposite is true.   

As the Times admits much later in the piece, Sanders, as chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee, realized that Republicans were seriously underfunding the VA, and fought hard for adequate financing. It was the underfunding, not the deeply flawed agency of the Times’s imagination, that led to the long wait times.

The Times got the story wrong in its earlier reporting of this trumped up scandal, and its attack on Sanders relies on its earlier mistakes. For nearly two years, its reporters have been shaping and amplifying a deeply flawed and factually challenged mainstream media narrative that dovetails neatly with the privatizing agenda of right-wing Republicans in Washington.  

As I reported for the Prospect, the VHA is far more cost effective and compassionate than other counterparts in the health-care system treating comparable patients. The right’s agenda, a threat that Sanders appreciated early on, is to privatize much of the VHA. The Times relies heavily on latter day “Veterans Services Organizations” for its sources.

Wade Miller, a Heritage Foundation-funded critic of the VHA, expresses the GOP bias well when he argues that, “the best way we can help veterans is by reducing their need to use the VA.” According to Miller, the “biggest hurdle” to meeting that increased demand is the very fact that veterans’ health care is provided by “a government program.”

In the front-page Monday story by Steve Eder and Dave Philipps, the Times revisited congressional debates about VHA funding and service delivery in 2014 that were much influenced by this perspective. However, the GOP’s ideological fixation with shrinking government is cited only in passing, via a single reference to the views of “some Republican Presidential candidates and a veterans’ organization backed by the billionaires Charles G. and David H. Koch.”

Instead, Eder and Phillips focus their criticism on Sanders. When Republican opposition to measures like SB 1982, a $21 billion funding package that Sanders introduced in early 2014, helped aggravate the longer wait times that became a Times-reported “scandal” later that same year, Sanders faced “a moment of crisis,” according to Eder and Phillips. “His deep seated faith in the fundamental goodness of government blinded him, at least at first, to a dangerous breakdown in the one corner of it he was supposed to police.”

What was slowing Sanders down and revealing supposed leadership shortcomings, then and now? In part, the Times contends, it was because he “initially saw a conservative plot” to discredit and undermine the VHA so more veterans would support dismantling of the VHA and its replacement with private sector health-care coverage instead. Was this threat a mere figment of the senator’s imagination? Apparently not, according to his rival for the Democratic presidential nomination. Just three days before the Times piece debunking Sanders’s defense of the VHA appeared, Hillary Clinton told MSNBC debate viewers the push for VHA privatization is “another part of the Koch brothers’ agenda. They’ve actually formed an organization to try to being to convince Americans we should no longer have guaranteed health care, specialized health care for our veterans.” Like Sanders—and under pressure from him on this issue—Clinton said she would work with other “veterans’ service organizations, the veterans of America” to “fix the V.A.” but would “never let it be privatized.”

The group Clinton was referring to is called Concerned Veterans for America, which has few actual members, and unlike real Veterans Service Organizations—like the Disabled Veterans of America (DAV), Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) and Paralyzed Veterans of America and Amvets—it provides no veterans services. Until only six months ago, these four traditional VSOs worked in an alliance called the Independent Budget. In the past, this coalition provided Congress and the White House with its own assessment of the VA’s funding needs. Sanders consulted all of those groups when crafting S.B. 1982 and they supported it. 

The other veterans’ group the Times reporters quote heavily is Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA). According to a monograph, by Stephen Trynosky, on the political environment that now influences the fate of the VHA, the IAVA is a new kind of VSO—one that has “assiduously embraced a fundraising and revenue model focused heavily on corporate underwriting. … The group’s 2012 annual report lists a constellation of corporate donors and wealthy patrons, some of whom appear to have an interest in the increased privatization of VHA services.”

The Times presents the $21 billion price tag for SB 1982 as excessive, when $21 billion spent over ten years is just a sliver of the VA’s total annual budget of about $160 billion, and miniscule compared to the more than a trillion of direct spending on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars that have created so much demand for VHA services. As the Times belatedly acknowledges late in the piece, Sanders did work effectively with his Republican counterparts to enact a $16 billion bill—less than was needed but enough to finance improvements. So apparently, the $21 billion that Sanders originally called for wasn’t so crazy.

In short, Sanders saw the privatization threat and the consequences of underfunding well in advance. He did his best to deal with both threats but was blocked by Republicans. As the Times admits very late in the piece, Sanders’s original funding bill with a price-tag of $21 billion actually got 56 votes in the Senate—not a fringe measure at all—but was blocked by a filibuster. In fact, Republican opponents of the bill weren’t “puzzled” by it as the Times reports—they were adamant that more money should not be spent on veterans’ health care—unless that money is channeled, through the Choice Act and other Republican-sponsored legislative proposals, to private sector providers. Judging by the facts of the case, a better headline and storyline of the piece could have been, “Sanders Resisted GOP Assault on Veterans Benefits.”

The Times needs to move its singular fixation on wait times—real or exaggerated—and also inform its readers about the things the VA does well. A recent study, for example, compared the outcomes for 700,000 California cancer patients who were treated at the VHA with patients covered by private insurance, or Medicare and Medicaid. Particularly relevant to the current wait time debate, it documents the fact that although veterans had to wait longer for access to care than those covered by the other insurance programs, they received more appropriate treatment and had better outcomes. As one of its authors Kenneth W. Kizer MD, MPH (and former Under Secretary for Health at the VA) explains, short delays in care, while unacceptable, may not be as important a variable as getting the right kind of care. Which is why, according to Garry Augustine, executive director of the Disabled Veterans of America, most of DAV’s 1.3 million members want delays in care to be fixed and the system to be well-funded because they “prefer to be treated at the VHA where they receive holistic services in one place instead of the kind of disjointed care they get in the private sector.”

And check out Suzanne Gordon's in-depth take on the Veterans Health Administration's strong performance in the face of right-wing attacks from our Fall 2015 issue. 

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Sanders was a ranking Democrat on the Veterans Affairs Affairs Committee. In fact, he was a ranking independent member who caucused with Democrats. 

New Mexico Bucks Criminal Justice Reform Trends, Moves Toward Harsher Penalties

Proponents of tough-on-crime policies aren’t throwing in the towel just yet.

In late January, the Republican-controlled New Mexico House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a bill that would expand the number of violent felonies punishable under the state’s “three-strikes” law. Currently, New Mexico law mandates a life sentence for repeat offenders convicted of three separate violent felonies. The statute, if amended, would increase the number of felonies that qualify as “strikes” from five to more than 15 and add offenses like involuntary manslaughter and armed robbery to the list.

In recent years, California and other states have dialed back their three-strikes laws in an effort to reduce their prison populations. But New Mexico has headed in the opposite direction by moving to widen the scope of the law in an effort to keep more people, particularly repeat offenders, behind bars.

The bill’s supporters argue that the current law is inadequate and cite New Mexico’s higher than average rates of violent crime and a spate of high-profile cases in 2015—including the killing of two police officers and the shooting of a four-year-old girl during an alleged road-rage dispute—as evidence that people who commit violent crimes should be subject to harsher penalties, especially if they are repeat offenders.

The tough-on-crime proposals introduced during New Mexico’s current legislative session have struck some opponents as outdated, surfacing at a time when some states are retreating from the draconian laws that were mainstays of the 1990s. But the state’s current trajectory illustrates the difficulty of sustaining the momentum of criminal justice reform: When crime increases, punishment-oriented policies gain political traction.

In the days leading up to the January vote, Republican Representative Paul Pacheco, the bill’s sponsor and a former police officer, told the Albuquerque Journal that the tougher penalties would “incapacitat[e] a thin slice of criminal offenders to make New Mexico safer.”

However, critics have argued that the Pacheco bill would be an expensive undertaking that would have a negligible impact on crime rates. The plan would also eliminate judicial discretion from the sentencing equation: For example, one person convicted of three murders and another convicted of one act of involuntary manslaughter and two armed robberies would receive the same sentence.

In its assessment of the financial impact of the proposed bill, the New Mexico’s public defender agency concluded that the state’s habitual offender statute (which mandates extending a repeat offender’s sentence if the courts conclude that he or she continues to be a threat to public safety) has made the three-strikes law redundant.

Democrats control the state Senate in New Mexico, which makes it unlikely that Pacheco’s bill would become law during the 30-day legislative session that began in late January. But the sentencing proposal is just one of several pieces of “tough-on-crime” legislation being pushed by Republican Governor Susana Martinez and conservative state lawmakers prior to the November election.

Martinez made crime a centerpiece of her recent State of the State address, saying that,  “we need laws that are tough in substance, not just in sound bites.” Other pending bills include a constitutional amendment that would change state bail laws, a measure preserving mandatory minimum sentences, and a proposal that would classify law enforcement officers as a protected class under the New Mexico Hate Crimes Act.

In December, the Brennan Center published an analysis of crime rates in 30 major American cities from 2014 to 2015. Researchers found that while some cities saw rates for crimes like murder increase last year, the overall average crime rate for most areas remained unchanged over the two-year span. The national crime rate continues to be significantly lower than the historically high rates of the 1990s.

“Legislators are reacting to certain things that might be happening in their communities, but if we're talking about this historically, we're talking about very, very decreased crime rates since the 1990s,” Lauren-Brooke Eisen, a senior counsel for the New York-based Brennan Center for Justice told the Christian Science Monitor. “There may be pockets of crime in certain jurisdictions, but it's important to not have a knee-jerk reaction.”

Detroit Sick-Out Critics Frustrated They Can’t Blame it on the Teachers Union

For the past several months, teachers in Detroit have been organizing to protest their unsafe and underfunded public schools. These working conditions, the teachers argue, negatively impact both their ability to teach and students’ ability to learn. And students are indeed struggling: Detroit public school students consistently earn the lowest reading and math test scores compared to students in other urban districts across the country.

More recently, teachers have been calling in sick, forcing schools throughout the city to shut down. At first it was just a few schools at a time, but earlier this month the teachers escalated to larger, coordinated mass actions. On January 15, for example, 64 schools closed—more than half in the city—as teachers gathered to rally for more resources. Thirty-one thousand students had to stay home that day.

The mayor of Detroit, Mike Duggan, toured Detroit schools following the protests and reported seeing freezing children wearing winter coats in class, a dead mouse on the floor, and severely damaged facilities. Yet Duggan has limited power over Detroit’s schools; the district has been under state control for nearly seven years.  

These “sick-outs”—as they’re dubbed—have garnered great controversy. While plenty have expressed support for the teachers standing up for what they believe in, others say these educators are selfishly depriving students of their right to an education, and in some cases, free meals. Michigan Governor Rick Snyder said, “there are other venues and ways if people have issues. ... They shouldn’t be doing that at the expense of having kids not in class.”

Perhaps the group that is tripping over themselves the most is the so-called “pro-teacher but anti-union” cohort. It’s maddening for them that they can’t pin these sick-outs on the greedy scheming of the all-powerful teachers union. You know, the ones that just care about their salaries and pensions.

But the union did not spearhead these protests. The interim president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, Ivy Bailey, has repeatedly said she does not support the sick-out approach. (She refuses to condemn the teachers, however, given what she says are extremely legitimate complaints that have gone long ignored.) 

Still, many, like the Detroit News editorial board, have framed their sick-out media coverage around individuals like Steve Conn, an “ousted union president.” By pinning these protests on a former union leader, rather than on the grassroots group of diverse teachers leading them the Detroit News aims to mislead its readers about the source and nature of, and motives behind, the sick-outs.  

Now, Detroit Public Schools (DPS) has even filed a lawsuit, singling out 28 defendants, including Steve Conn, Ivy Bailey, and the Detroit Federation of Teachers in its complaint. In the suit, according to Governing, DPS takes issue with Conn calling the teacher sick-outs a “huge victory.” The suit also notes that Bailey has not ruled out the possibility of a district-wide strike.

While the union is not leading the protests, it is certainly offering support. Here’s a video the American Federation of Teachers helped to produce on life inside Detroit’s deteriorating public schools:

West Virginia Supreme Court Ruling Paves Way for Right-to-Work

(Photo: Flickr/David Wilson)
 

A complicated political brawl in West Virginia came to a head Friday when the state’s highest court issued a ruling that all but ensures the passage of so-called right-to-work legislation there. The bill would ban unions in the private sector from requiring membership or dues as a condition of employment.

In its ruling Friday, the state supreme court ordered Governor Earl Ray Tomblin to appoint a Republican to fill a key state senate vacancy. The ruling concludes one chapter in a drama triggered by state senator Daniel Hall’s decision in the middle of the term to switch parties from Democrat to Republican, only to resign earlier this month. The state high court’s ruling essentially cements the GOP’s one-seat, veto-proof majority in the state senate.

The decision disappointed Democrats and the state’s labor unions, who had been relying on the state Supreme Court as their last chance to stop Republicans’ legislative push to pass right-to-work legislation, which labor allies say is merely an attack on unions. Last week the state Senate passed right-to-work legislation along party lines, and the Republican-controlled House is poised to vote on and presumably approve the bill in short order.  

The political push to make West Virginia a right-to-work state comes at a perilous time for the national labor movement as the United States Supreme Court is considering a case that would ban public sector unions from collecting mandatory fees from non-members, creating a potential for the right-to-work movement to spread into government employment. Court-watchers widely anticipate that the bench will rule against unions.

Though Governor Tomblin, a Democrat, has threatened to veto the bill, Republicans only need a simple majority in both chambers to override that veto. If the Supreme Court had ruled to give Democrats the authority to fill Hall’s vacant seat, Democrats could have then killed an override attempt in the state senate, and could have stopped right-to-work from becoming law.

West Virginia has the highest unemployment rates in the county and has struggled to rebound from economic downturns. Once a labor stronghold thanks to a booming coal mining industry, the state has seen its union power wane as its main industry tanked.

Seizing on the political opportunity, Republicans have made right-to-work a top priority in the current legislative session, arguing that the law would be a boon for business and for employment growth. The policy push has been aided by a “who’s who” of the conservative right: the state’s Chamber of Commerce, the American Legislative Exchange Council, and the Heritage Foundation.

However, multiple liberal-leaning economic groups have discredited research the GOP and its allies have used to push the bill, pointing to faulty methodology and to the impossibility of singling out the impact of right-to-work on state economies.

Labor advocates say that right-to-work laws are thinly-veiled attempts to lower worker wages, increase corporate bottom-lines, and decimate unions all in one fell swoop.

“No matter how many studies you look at, there’s nothing that proves being a right to work state attracts employers,” Ken Hall, general secretary and treasurer of the Teamsters Union, told the Register-Herald. “This is not an issue that is good for West Virginia. This is absolutely, clearly being promoted by out-of-state interests, wealthy people and corporations to increase their profit.”

Republicans counter that right-to-work laws stimulate the economy. “States that have passed [right-to-work] have signaled to potential employers that they want job growth in their state and [West Virginia] is in no position to turn away this growth,” the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce said. “New and innovative policies are necessary to compete in today’s job market and if [right-to-work] has an impact, we need to pass it.”

If West Virginia Republicans succeed, the state will become the 26th in the nation to sanction right-to-work laws—meaning that more than half the nation’s legislatures have embraced anti-union policies.

This story has been updated. 

Sanders College Tour Spotlights Black Student Power

Independent senator and Democratic hopeful Bernie Sanders has launched a tour of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), in an apparent bid to reach out to young black voters who so far favor Hillary Clinton in the polls.

In visiting HBCUs, Sanders is casting the spotlight on institutions that have given black students, who have been protesting racial discrimination on campuses across the country, a vital safe space. As Darrick Hamilton wrote in the Fall 2015 issue of The American Prospect, HBCUs provide “safe and nurturing spaces for thousands of students,” but “are at risk of extinction” due to fiscal shortfalls.

After facing criticism from black voters that Sanders has a racial injustice blind spot, the campaign took drastic action last August by releasing a lengthy and detailed racial justice policy platform. “It is an outrage that in these early years of the 21st century we are seeing intolerable acts of violence being perpetrated by police and racist acts of terrorism by white supremacists,” it reads.

Sanders’s education platform, which calls for tuition-free and debt-free colleges, appears tailor-made to draw support from college students and may also resonate particularly with black students at severely underfunded HBCUs. Despite gains in wealth, employment, and education, the racial wealth gap persists, making college affordability a big problem within the black community, as Hamilton explains in the Prospect.

Because young college students played a crucial role in helping elect and re-elect President Barack Obama, it’s little wonder that the Sanders campaign has selected HBCUs for his next campaign tour.

HBCUs still matter to black students, notes Hamilton in the Prospect: “Given ... the ongoing societal presumption of black inferiority maintained by many college faculty and administrators, HBCUs have not outlived their purpose—indeed, their need calls for greater strengthening.”

LGBT Coalition Joins Calls to Stop Immigration Raids

The Obama administration faces mounting pressure from increasingly diverse quarters to halt the practice of controversial raids to deport undocumented immigrants.

The latest group to join the chorus of those demanding an end to the recent raids is a coalition of three-dozen lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender groups, which sent a letter Thursday to Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson. Johnson has said that “enforcement operations such as these will continue to occur as appropriate.” Two days of raids were carried out the first weekend of January and resulted so far in the detention of more than 120 people, most of them from Central America.

The negative impacts of the raids “are even more harrowing for LGBTQ immigrants that already report higher levels of violence and discrimination based on their sexual orientation and gender identity,” stated the letter, which was signed by the Human Rights Campaign, Lambda Legal, and Pride at Work, among others.

Earlier this week, nearly 150 House Democrats also sent a letter to the Obama administration, urging the president to stop the deportations and to “start working towards a solution that provides a practical and humane response to the mothers and children from Central America fleeing for their lives.”

The administration has defended the raids and deportations as necessary to deter an uptick in illegal border crossings in the months prior to the raids. Administration officials say the focus of the operations has been on immigrants who had “exhausted appropriate legal remedies” and have already been ordered to leave the country.

The dispute between Obama and members of his own party over immigration raids has also spilled over onto the presidential campaign trail. Senator Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley both condemned the raids last week, and Hillary Rodham Clinton chimed in on Monday, saying “the raids have sown fear and division in immigrant communities across the country.”

But the administration can at least count on support for its actions from the Republican candidates: After the plans for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids were leaked to the press late in December, Donald Trump tweeted, “Wow, because of the pressure put on by me, ICE TO LAUNCH LARGE SCALE DEPORTATION RAIDS. It’s about time!” 

Bernie Trolls Hillary in Response to Single-Payer Attacks

As Senator Bernie Sanders’s polling numbers surge in Iowa and New Hampshire, Hillary Clinton’s campaign is going on the offensive.

Clinton is attempting to spin Sanders’s longtime support for a single-payer health-care system as a radical idea that would harm the middle class—and one that has no realistic funding source. And it’s quickly turning into the fiercest debate between the two candidates in a primary that so far has been short on drama.

Clinton’s daughter, Chelsea, accused Sanders of wanting to do away Medicare and Medicaid, which she said would “strip millions and millions of people of their health insurance.” That’s a stretch, given that a single-payer system would actually expand those programs to all Americans.

Clinton’s top staffers have also blasted Sanders for not specifying how much he would spend on such a plan, which is estimated to cost as much as $15 trillion.

The Clinton camp's choice of single-payer as its main line of attack on Sanders has prompted some Democrats to cry hypocrisy. They point back to 2008, when Clinton assailed Barack Obama for attacking her on single-payer. "Since when do Democrats attack one another on universal health care?" she asked at the time.

In response to Clinton's decision to reverse course and attack a longtime Democratic health-care policy priority, Sanders posted this sarcastic Twitter troll yesterday.

As the Iowa Democratic Caucus rapidly approaches, the tit for tat will only get nastier.

Planned Parenthood Endorses Hillary Clinton

On Sunday, January 10, in Manchester, New Hampshire, Planned Parenthood Action Fund will formally endorse Hillary Clinton for president—its first-ever primary endorsement. Planned Parenthood says it plans to spend at least $20 million on this election.

The national women’s health organization has thrown itself ever more forcefully into politics since its president, Cecile Richards, took over in 2006.  

The Planned Parenthood endorsement comes on the heels of a Clinton endorsement by NARAL Pro-Choice America PAC, a national abortion rights group. In 2008, NARAL endorsed Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton during the Democratic primary.

“We're proud to endorse Hillary Clinton for President of the United States,” said Richards in a statement. “No other candidate in our nation’s history has demonstrated such a strong commitment to women or such a clear record on behalf of women’s health and rights. This is about so much more than Planned Parenthood. Health care for an entire generation is at stake."

Clinton, Richards, and Planned Parenthood took to Twitter after news of the forthcoming endorsement was released:

 

 

 

 

Reproductive rights are set to be a major issue in this next election. Just this week, House Republicans voted yet again to defund Planned Parenthood, in large part because they are hoping Obama’s inevitable veto will galvanize anti-abortion voters on the campaign trail. Last year was a rocky one for Planned Parenthood, which sustained months of attacks after a conservative group accused the abortion provider of illegally profiting off of fetal tissue, a charge Planned Parenthood denied.

Obama Orders More Research on Gun Violence. But Will Congress Interfere?

For years, one of the federal obstacles that has most frustrated gun safety advocates is an old prohibition on gun violence research. Without robust data on the impact of guns, safety advocates say, policymakers are unable to respond effectively to the epidemic of gun violence plaguing the nation.

On Tuesday, President Obama issued an executive order that not only tackles that problem head on but also reforms and expands background checks on firearm sales and commits $500 million towards increasing mental health access. Most importantly, the order directs the Departments of Homeland Security, Defense, and Justice to develop and increase research into gun safety technology.

Prior to this executive order, Congress had stymied effective gun violence research. In 1996, Arkansas Republican Jay Dickey (who has since reversed his position) added a rider to a budget bill that stripped the Centers for Disease Control of its funding for gun violence research.  After the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, Obama ordered the CDC to begin researching gun violence prevention, but the agency still lacked funding and remained fearful of a backlash from Congress.

The research component of the new executive order bypasses the CDC by assigning those three federal departments the task of researching safety technology. These new technologies aim to minimize accidental discharges and trace lost or stolen guns.

After Obama’s emotional speech on his executive orders, Republicans were quick to weigh in. “No matter what President Obama says, his word does not trump the Second Amendment,” said Speaker Paul Ryan in a statement. “We will conduct vigilant oversight. His executive order will no doubt be challenged in the courts.”

Though Congress seems poised to fight Obama on gun control, advocates applauded the move. But, without Congress pushing for the CDC to research the gun violence epidemic, Obama’s order directing the three departments to research safety technologies can only go so far.

According to Ted Alcorn, the research director at Everytown—a nonprofit organization aimed at ending gun violence—researching gun violence is of life-and-death importance. “We won’t identify and implement measures that put a true dent in our country’s extraordinary rate of gun deaths,” he told The American Prospect, “without broad, sustained investment in research.”

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