Will Obama's Gun Package Include Bypassing Congress on ATF Director?
At noon tomorrow, President Obama is scheduled to unveil the slate of gun-control proposals recommended by Vice President Joe Biden, surrounded by "children from around the country who wrote the president letters in the wake of that tragedy expressing their concerns about gun violence and school safety."
Those proposals are expected to run the gamut from executive actions that could be done without congressional approval to a legislative agenda that will urge a renewal of the long-dormant assault weapons ban, limits on the size of gun magazines, and more.
"Certainly, a significant part of what he hopes we together can achieve will have to be done working with Congress," White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters today. "…The president will put forward a series of proposals that is not limited to one legislative action."
But the president plans could also include a bit of executive pen-wielding to put his choice into the permanent leadership position at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives.
The ATF has been without a permanent director in six years. Acting Director B. Todd Jones is essentially a part-timer while he keeps his job as a U.S. Attorney in Minneapolis -- since August 2011.
Before Jones began, the last acting director, Kenneth E. Melson, resigned in the fallout from Project Gunrunner.
But the administration's take is that the rudderless chaos at the agency tasked with enforcing gun laws already on the books is clearly the fault of Congress.
"I think that it's a simple fact that it's been a very long time since the Senate has confirmed a head of the ATF. And it needs to act," Carney said. "…Usually when there's a case of nominations being held up and congressional inaction, the problem is often with Congress."
Or, the problem could be Obama's pick.
In late 2010, Obama tapped the head of the ATF's Chicago office to lead the bureau. The nomination of Andrew Traver, now leading the Denver office, has been frozen ever since.
"Traver has been deeply aligned with gun-control advocates and anti-gun activities," the National Rifle Association said at the time. "This makes him the wrong choice to lead an enforcement agency that has almost exclusive oversight and control over the firearms industry, its retailers and consumers."
The NRA launched stoptraver.org and orchestrated a legislative push against the nomination.
"According to published reports, Traver is a Chicago political crony, hand-picked for this job by former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel -- the Brady Campaign’s key ally during Bill Clinton’s eight-year war on our Second Amendment rights," the NRA said in its action alert.
"An agency such as BATFE, that is involved in the regulation of a fundamental, individual right guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution, should not be led by an individual with a demonstrated hostility toward that freedom. "
The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence lauded the nomination of Traver to take over "an agency that is 'under siege' by the gun lobby and its allies in Congress."
“Past ATF directors have been crucial advocates for strong law enforcement authority to combat gun trafficking and gun violence. They have spoken publicly, testified before Congress, and advocated within their Administrations about the need for strong gun laws,” said Paul Helmke, then-president of the Brady Center. “If Mr. Traver is confirmed, we are hopeful that he will be a strong voice for the strengthening and effective enforcement of our gun laws.”
The Traver nomination came shortly after the Brady Campaign roundly criticized the administration for not jumping on the task of naming a new director. Obama renominated him at the beginning of the 112th Congress but no Senate hearings have been scheduled for Traver.
President George W. Bush also had an ATF nominee, Michael J. Sullivan, whose confirmation was blocked over concerns from a gun dealer.
If recent public pressure statements are any indication, the next ATF director could be one of the executive actions meant to bypass Congress.
"There are certain things that the president can do as I said, administratively," Rep. Mike Thomas (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Democrats' gun-control task force, said on CNN today. "He can appoint a director of ATF."
On Monday, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg urged Obama to take that step “without congressional approval at any time he chooses with just the stroke of a pen.”
“The president can make a recess appointment to head the federal Bureau of Alcohol and Firearms. The ATF as it’s called hasn’t had a director for six years. Can you imagine how much outrage there’d be if we’d been without a Homeland Security Secretary for six years?” Bloomberg, co-chairman of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, said at a summit held by the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Center for Gun Policy and Research.
Mayors Against Illegal Guns called on Obama to do the same five days after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn.
"The need for leadership at the ATF has never been more urgent," the group wrote in a letter to Obama. "The time has come for you to make a recess appointment to fill the vacancy at the top of the ATF."
Biden will be addressing a broader group of city leaders, the United States Conference of Mayors, on Thursday.
While repeatedly saying that he wouldn't divulge any of Obama's proposals before tomorrow's event, Carney did hint at the possibility of the administration trying to make its case to go behind Congress' back on the Traver nod.
"I think an agency with the responsibilities that ATF has, it has lacked a confirmed leader for the amount of time that it does, I think reflects the lack of necessary focus on these problem," Carney said. "It's hard to measure what the impact of that absence has been, but it's hard to imagine how it would be positive."