Tom Cotton Leads the Right-Wing Charge to Kill Criminal-Justice Reform, the One Bipartisan Initiative Still Possible

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The grim young conservative superstar Tom Cotton wants to slam the door on federal sentencing reform. Photo: Mark Wilson/2015 Getty Images

You could just feel this coming during the Baltimore disturbances, the talk about an anti-police “Ferguson effect” and the immediately inflated evidence of an uptick in some types of violent crime in some cities. The temptation of law-and-order politics is pulling more and more conservatives away from the carefully cultivated, Evangelical-blessed, libertarian-influenced, bipartisan criminal-justice-reform movement, which was moving toward fruition in Congress.  

The immediate flash point is in the Senate, where a bill to allow for reconsideration of federal sentences imposed under the idiotic regime of mandatory minimum sentences had been considered a very good prospect for enactment in this legislatively barren election year. Two of its most prominent backers were hyperconservative senators John Cornyn of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah, and it had overcome its supposedly most difficult obstacle when Judiciary Committee chairman Chuck Grassley approved it. 

But now a backlash — I am using the term very deliberately — is building, led by freshman Republican senator and conservative superstar Tom Cotton of Arkansas, supported by backbenchers who pretty clearly want to show off their law-and-order credentials. Politico’s Seung Min Kim reports Cotton’s efforts could convince Mitch McConnell to deep-six the legislation for this Congress:

Cotton, the hawkish upstart who’s already made waves on the Iran nuclear deal and government surveillance programs, is now leading a new rebellion against a bipartisan effort to overhaul the criminal justice system — hoping to torpedo one of the few pieces of major legislation that could pass Congress in President Barack Obama’s final year.

GOP tensions over a bill that would effectively loosen some mandatory minimum sentences spilled over during a party lunch last week, when Cotton (R-Ark.), the outspoken Senate freshman, lobbied his colleagues heavily against the legislation, according to people familiar with the closed-door conversation. The measure passed the Senate Judiciary Committee last fall with bipartisan support….

Cotton isn’t alone. Other Senate Republicans, including Sens. Jim Risch of Idaho and David Perdue of Georgia, also registered their strong opposition during the lunch, even as Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) vigorously defended the bill, which he helped negotiate. Risch stressed this message, according to one Republican source: Shouldn’t the GOP be a party of law and order?

Risch declined to elaborate on his concerns over the bill, saying he was displeased that his private remarks made during a party lunch were made public. But the deepening Republican split over reforming key elements of the criminal justice system — an effort years in the making that has been powered by an influential right-left coalition — may imperil whether Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell ultimately will take up the measure later in this election year.

It’s easy to laugh at Risch’s displeasure at being caught in mid-demagoguery, but he is unquestionably articulating views that are in the air. Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump, after all, likes to talk about an immigrant-driven “crime wave” that requires a new crackdown on the lowlifes and losers who are challenging police authorities in the cities. And his attitude seems to have softened the commitment to criminal-justice reform of his sometimes Mini-Me and now-deadly rival, Ted Cruz.

But what may most be animating this collapse of bipartisanship is not the 2016 presidential election, but the next one or the one after that: whenever it is that Tom Cotton makes his inevitable move toward the White House. Possessor of a mile-long pre-political résumé (two Harvard degrees, circuit court clerkship, military service in Afghanistan and Iraq, a stint with McKinsey & Company), and already distinguishing himself as the hawkiest of hawks, Cotton is the purveyor of a grim, Calvinist, old-school conservatism that still has a lot of support in the GOP. As a House member he talked about the prospect of a debt limit breach and an ensuing recession as though it might be a good, bracing tonic for a nation too accustomed to easy credit. He’s just the guy to slam the prison door shut on those who might have gotten a tardy but life-saving reprieve from hammer-headed sentences. 

If sentencing reform does succumb to Cotton & Co., it’s hard to figure when the next green shoots of hope for bipartisanship might appear. Right now that spring feels far away.