Immigration and gun control have dominated the issue agenda for the past few weeks, pushing away, for a time, the previously dominant worries about fiscal issues and their impact on the overall health of the U.S. economy. But Wednesday morning’s news that the economy, as measured by real gross domestic product, had declined in the fourth quarter of 2012 by one-tenth of a percentage point—surprising economists who had expected the economy to grow by 1 percent—brings these issues back to the forefront. In the third quarter of 2012, real GDP grew by 3.1 percent.
The release of numbers showing the economy contracting slightly in the last quarter hardly constitutes a hair-on-fire event, and they could be revised upward next month when the second estimate is released. But Wednesday’s report follows two surveys indicating that consumers have unexpectedly turned pessimistic. On Tuesday, the Conference Board released its preliminary consumer-confidence numbers for January. It pegged confidence at 58.6, far below the consensus estimate by Briefing.com of 65.1. The confidence level in December was 66.7; the recovery’s peak level of 73.1 came in October.
The Conference Board numbers follow on the heels of preliminary January numbers by the Reuters/University of Michigan Index of Consumer Sentiment showing a decline in consumer optimism to far below what economists had forecast. The Reuters/Michigan number for the first half of January was 71.3, down from 72.9 in December and well off the consensus of 75 reported by Briefing.com. The Conference Board and the Reuters/University of Michigan numbers are the most closely watched indicators of consumer sentiment, with the latter considered the less volatile of the two. When both head in the same direction, it’s worth noting.
The lower consumer-confidence numbers for January suggest that the outcome of the year-end fiscal-cliff fight did not leave Americans particularly hopeful and, more important, that they did not appreciate opening their first paycheck of 2013 to find lower take-home pay because of the end of the payroll-tax holiday. Like the GDP figure, these new consumer-confidence numbers don’t significantly change things. They should, however, act as a reminder of just how anemic this economic recovery is and how vulnerable American consumers feel in this new economic world order.
Things look brighter on one of the other major-issue fronts. The chances that Congress will pass comprehensive immigration reform seem to be climbing at a rate backers could have only dreamed of six months ago. More-enlightened Republicans now see this as an issue that needs to be taken off the table if their party is going to climb back to national electoral relevance, and Democrats appear to be sincere in wanting to deal with the problem rather than keep the issue alive as a club to beat the GOP over the head with to win minority voters. Both parties have had to deal with some of their more cynical politicians who would rather keep an issue on the table than solve a problem.
On gun control, it is becoming increasingly clear that an ambitious broad-based measure like the one introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., cannot pass either the House or the Senate. If anything passes at all, it is more likely to be a strengthening of background checks and a closing of the gun-show loophole. A limit on the size of gun magazines is possible, and the most plausible of any major reform, but it falls in between in terms of likelihood. A joint op-ed in The New York Times by James Baker III, a former Republican secretary of State and the Treasury, and Rep. John Dingell, a Michigan Democrat—both lifelong hunters and the latter a former National Rifle Association board member—embraced the concept of a broad-based bill and specified consideration of bans on magazines holding 30 or more rounds and armor-piercing bullets, although they didn’t come out for banning either. But such a measure would be a very heavy lift for red-state Democratic senators as well as for GOP House and Senate members who fear primary challenges.
One interesting question is whether the passage of an immigration bill and a modest gun measure using the “regular order”—committee consideration, floor votes with amendments, and a conference to work out differences between the House and Senate—will revive the legislative “animal spirits” (as they say on Wall Street). Such a revival would remind members that they really are legislators, not just debaters and political combatants. And actually accomplishing a couple of things using the time-honored but forgotten legislative process would also serve as a reminder that the old ways did work well for a very long time. When lobbyists have to explain to committee staff members how House-Senate conference committees work, you know the situation has gotten bad. Maybe things will change.
This article appears in the Feb. 2, 2013, edition of National Journal as Guns and Butter.