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Here's the ugly truth: The highest priority for members of Congress is not to legislate. It's to stay in Congress. Every vote — especially every bipartisan vote — risks marring incumbents' records of ideological purity and opens the door to primary challengers from the far right or far left. The main thing that overcomes such stagnation is sustained political pressure put on members of Congress by activists who mobilize public opinion for change.

Activists are why we have the Civil Rights Acts and the Voting Rights Act. Seatbelt laws that swept the country. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993. The assault weapons ban in 1994. Campaign finance reform in 2002.

In other words, motivated members of the public are largely responsible for some of our country's most significant legislation. But in recent years, activists seem to have become more impulsive and impatient, demanding swift action on big problems without the kind of compromise and incremental work that creates real and lasting change. Rose Garden signing ceremonies feel good in the moment, but too often their thrills fade fast. Big, swift executive actions — issued by presidents without going through Congress — have frequently blown up in our faces.

So I have a plea for activists on the left and on the right, many of whom I don't agree with: You have enormous power, more than you may realize. If you master the art of impulse control and play a longer game to put pressure on Congress to get solidly crafted, consensus legislation, you may have a better chance at achieving lasting change on issues like gun control, religious liberty and immigration. And without it, well, look around.

Take gun control. It's been nearly seven years since Stephen Paddock fatally shot 60 people and injured hundreds more at an outdoor music festival in Las Vegas. It was the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history, and it was enabled in part by bump stocks, accessories that let semiautomatic rifles spray bullets much faster. In 11 minutes, Paddock fired over 1,000 bullets.

In the wake of the shooting, 82% of surveyed Americans said they supported a ban on bump stocks. Activists put pressure on Congress to amend the 1934 National Firearms Act to add bump stocks to the definition of what makes a weapon an illegal machine gun. Congress responded, and within a month, the Senate and the House had introduced bills to ban bump stocks.

But the legislation never passed.

President Donald Trump saw an opportunity to score a political win for himself on a broadly popular issue while saving House and Senate Republicans from taking a vote that might have risked alienating a segment of their base. Through executive action, his administration simply declared that the National Firearms Act now included bump stocks. Gun control activists applauded. Then, in large part, they moved on.

They shouldn't have.

Last week the Supreme Court struck down the Trump administration's ban, signaling that only Congress may ban bump stocks. This outcome was so predictable that I had expected it for years. U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein predicted an outcome like this just days after the ban was put in place. Regardless of whether you think the court was correct in the ruling, nothing about this should have come as a surprise.

And yet when Congress passed a bipartisan gun bill in 2022, it didn't include a ban on bump stocks — even though lawsuits challenging Trump's executive action were already in progress. The public pressure had already been released. The moment had passed.

This wasn't the first time in recent years that activists have squandered their chance to codify change, accepting and even preferring short-term, sugar-high victories that disappear as quickly and easily as they came about.

In 2014 comprehensive immigration reform was a real possibility. Activists were so effective that a bill that would have given a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants already in the U.S. passed in the Senate with strong bipartisan support. True, House Republicans were playing hardball, but with the right compromises — and sustained public pressure — there was a path forward. Instead, they got much of what they wanted with the stroke of President Barack Obama's pen.

His "year of action" thrilled activists. He signed more than 80 executive actions, including one expanding DACA to cover additional Dreamers.

But again, the changes generally didn't last. Months into Trump's tenure, he had reversed much of them. And yet conservative activists were only too eager to chase their own sugar highs, applauding short-lived executive actions on abortion, immigration and religious liberty, among others.

The cycle of one step forward, two steps back has only picked up in speed during the Biden administration, with major actions on things like student loan forgiveness and new rules to combat climate change. Some activists now seem convinced that there's no point in trying to work with Congress — or perhaps they just prefer the fund-raising boost that comes from announcing a quick victory.

And there's more coming. Left-wing activists seem giddy about President Joe Biden's new policy granting legal protections to hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants married to U.S. citizens. Without irony, one immigration activist said, "This is the biggest thing since DACA." The lawyers ready to challenge the executive action are already warming up in the bullpen.

It's true that getting this type of immigration change through Congress right now would be hard. Republicans recently rejected an immigration bill. But that's how the legislative process works. There's always an offer they can't refuse. There's always more leverage that can be brought to bear. Congress isn't broken; there are just not enough people willing to force it to work.

The fact that many activists are content with fleeting executive actions is unforgivable. These actions are often worse than getting nothing at all. At least getting nothing would keep the pressure on Congress. Getting nothing would bring more and more people to help push against the closed doors. But when activists declare victory — however hollow — they give permission for everyone to move on. They let Congress off the hook. They give the president credit where none is due. And they fail at their most important job, which is to force lasting change for the people who need it most.

Sarah Isgur is a senior editor at the Dispatch and the host of the legal podcast "Advisory Opinions." She served in the Department of Justice from 2017 to 2019 as the director of the Office of Public Affairs and as senior counsel to the deputy attorney general during the Russia investigation. This article originally appeared in the New York Times.