Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul recently introduced in Congress the Justice Safety Valve Act. The bipartisan legislation is also supported by Vermont Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy with the intent of amending current law to grant judges the authority to issue sentences below a mandatory minimum in the appropriate situations.
Paul argues the rampant drug epidemic should be treated as a public-health crisis, as opposed to a war that disproportionately impacts minorities. Despite the war on drugs that has spanned decades, the prison population has exponentially increased, in addition to the billions of dollars currently spent on incarceration.
Despite its noble intent, Paul’s legislation is unlikely to pass the Republican-controlled Congress anytime soon. It’s opposed by powerful Republican senators such as Tom Cotton of Arkansas and David Perdue of Georgia. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had the opportunity to advance similar legislation to the floor before the 2016 presidential election, but demurred because of the intra-party dispute over a controversial subject that could impact elections and spill over to other policy agenda items.
Paul concedes the bill currently faces an “uphill battle” getting to the president’s desk. Success is even less likely because Paul has refused to hold the Trump administration accountable and has not been bold enough in dealmaking and political strategy.
The impetus for Paul’s legislation was intensified by the recent directive of United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions for federal prosecutors throughout the country to charge criminal suspects with the most serious offenses possible. This is a radical reversal from the Obama administration Justice Department guidelines that were constructed by Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch.
Sessions has a long track record as a federal prosecutor and senator in supporting mandatory-minimum criminal sentences. He believes that such draconian sentences keep America safe from drugs and the crime associated with their trafficking and use.
As a U.S. attorney in Alabama during the 1980s, Sessions infamously said he thought the KKK were OK until he found out they smoked marijuana. He attempted to singlehandedly derail bipartisan congressional efforts at criminal-justice reform while in the Senate. Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois has referred to Sessions as the No. 1 opponent of the effort to reduce mandatory-minimum sentences for low-level nonviolent drug offenses.
In spite of this, Paul voted to confirm Sessions as President Donald Trump’s attorney general on Feb. 8.
Paul recently commented that Sessions’ lack of sympathy and aggressive enforcement of mandatory minimum sentences really “surprised” him. Given his transparent history, this is a shocking amount of naivete and lack of deft political instincts from a United States senator.
Paul has had a complicated relationship with Trump over the years, but surprisingly has been a rubber stamp for all of his cabinet picks. Trump rudely complained that Paul shouldn’t have been included in the 2015 Simi Valley Republican primary debate because of low polling numbers and said there was a lot of subject matter to attack regarding Paul’s physical appearance. The two played golf recently in Virginia to discuss health-care reform despite their previous acrimony.
Rather than feign surprise at the predictable actions of Sessions and propose legislation that has zero chance of passing Congress, Paul should appeal to the better angels of his Libertarian tendencies and do a better job of holding the Trump administration politically accountable.
To date, the only measures he’s taken in this vein were to vote against the confirmation of the CIA director (who received 66 votes) and abstain from voting on the confirmation of David Friedman to serve as U.S. Ambassador to Israel.
This is hardly a profile in courage and is a major departure from the presidential candidate who was willing to challenge Trump at every turn during the primary season. Sessions was narrowly confirmed by a 52-47 vote. If Paul could have convinced only three Republican senators who opposed mandatory-minimum sentences to vote against Sessions, the need for his Justice Safety Valve Act would be moot.
This is the type of real leadership a presidential candidate and dealmaker exercises.
If Paul has any future ambitions for higher office, bold moves like these are what he should do to best distinguish and prepare himself for such an important role.
Aaron Kall, a 2001 University of Kentucky graduate, is director of debate at the University of Michigan and editor/co-author of “Debating The Donald.”