The one and only decent idea to emanate from the Trump White House — a bill that proposes reforms to the nation’s archaic criminal justice system — is about to die in Congress’ lame-duck session because of one man: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky).
True to the form of our hyper-dysfunctional politics, McConnell is openly defying the president as well as a large contingent of GOP senators by refusing to bring the measure to a vote before the current session ends.
The irony of McConnell’s spiking the only idea that has a sliver of merit from the White House is a bright-line example of just how dysfunctional Congress has become. Even though this criminal reform legislation is favored by President Donald Trump and key White House insiders, a significant number of GOP lawmakers, and nearly all of the Democrats in Congress, its chances of passage are doomed because the Senate’s top Republican doesn’t like the bill.
“Each passing day they get less,” Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) told Politico earlier this week, speculating on the odds of the bill’s passage. “We’re still lobbying Sen. McConnell. He has all the power to allow it or not allow it.”
The legislation — popularly known by its acronymic name, the FIRST STEP Act — is a package of policies intended “to help reduce the risk that prisoners will recidivate upon release from prison.”
In particular, the bill would reform mandatory minimum sentences for certain non-violent repeat drug offenders and eliminate the three-strike required life sentence provisions. Additionally, the bill would encourage individuals in federal prisons to receive educational, vocational, and therapeutic assistance and offer time-off credit for the successful completion of such programs. It would also increase the use of home detention, post-release transitional, and electronic monitoring programs.
In order to sweeten the legislation and help ease some Senate opposition, the bill’s sponsors recently agreed to changes that reduced the likelihood that people convicted of violent crimes would qualify for the bill’s benefits.
It’s a remarkable and rare example of bipartisan legislation. Its most notable feature, according to The New York Times, is the way it has brought together an unlikely coalition of advocacy groups from the left and the right, including conversative billionaire brothers Charles G. and David H. Koch, as well as the American Civil Liberties Union, in calling for its passage.
What’s more, Trump both likes the bill and understands its virtues. “This is a true first-step in creating a fairer justice system by reforming mandatory minimums, which have created racially discriminatory outcomes and increased overcrowding and costs,” the White House said in a statement of support for the legislation.
Despite all that, the legislation is unlikely to pass the Senate this term because McConnell stands in its way. According to various news reports, the majority leader has told fellow Republicans he does not envision bringing the bill to the floor for a vote, preferring instead to push through judicial appointments and the passage of legislation to fund the government.
“[McConnell] doesn’t like the bill,” Republican donor Doug Deason, a key White House ally, said recently in an interview with The Washington Post. “He’s a (former Attorney General) Jeff Sessions-style, lock-them-up-and-throw-away-the-key kind of guy.”
It’s all so unfortunate — and undemocratic — that one lone, arrogant senator can gum up the will of the public, preventing the passage of a public policy that has widespread support. Criminal justice reform is long overdue and broadly popular among voters and lawmakers. What’s more, a whip count of senators this week found that up to 30 Republican senators and 49 Democratic senators were likely to vote of the legislation.
“We have the clearest path forward that we have had in years,” said Holly Harris, the executive director of the Justice Action Network, which supports the legislation, told The New York Times. “This would be the first time that these members have voted on a piece of legislation that turns away from the lock-’em-up-and-throw-away-the-keys policies of the 1990s. That is groundbreaking.”
Well, it would be, if only McConnell would get out of the way and bring the measure to the Senate floor for a vote.