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Why Did Four Republicans Vote for the SSA?

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Four Republican Senators voted in Committee for the Heroin Dealers Windfall Act Smarter Sentencing Act, which would, among other things, slash by 50% the prison terms that, under current law, must be meted out to repeat and/or particularly dangerous drug merchants.  The four were Mike Lee of Utah (a sponsor of the bill), Jeff Flake of Arizona, Rand Paul of Kentucky, and Ted Cruz of Texas.

Why would conservative Republicans, generally shrewd in figuring out the liberal game of giving goodies to criminals, vote for this bill?

I think there are six reasons.
First, they got something important in return.  The bill does not abolish mandatory minimums, which had been a key goal for liberals.  To the exact contrary, it adds three.  Thanks to an amendment proposed by Sen. Grassley, the Committee's Ranking Republican, it also requires DOJ to come up with a list of all criminal statutes used to enforce mere regulatory infractions.  That was a key victory for a growing segment of the Republican Party, which views the proliferation of non-mens rea crimes as the iron fist of the regulatory state.

Second, the libertarian segment of the Party, which is relatively small but vocal, and most frequently given voice by Sens. Paul and Lee, has very significant doubts that drugs, particularly marijuana, should be criminalized at all.  They know that wholesale legalization is not going to happen, and believe that the next best thing is "legalization lite," to wit, a ratcheting down of penalties, of which this bill is  -- under that view of the world  --  a promising first step. 

Third, they may have fallen for the "cost" argument.  Probably the main contention put forth by the bill's sponsors is that we simply do not have the money to keep expanding the federal prison population, and that the best way to start to keep it in check is to lower sentences.

If this argument had any pull, it would be unfortunate, because it's a fraud, as I have shown earlier.  We have always found the money to do the things the country urgently needs doing, and safeguarding the right of normal people to live in peace and safety should be the first obligation of government, not the first thing on the chopping block.

Fourth, Republicans are human beings like everybody else (despite what you might hear on MSNBC), and can become complacent and forgetful.  Crime is now at  near-fifty year lows.  It's off the radar screen, politically.  Some Republicans could have felt that voting to slash sentences will save money, at least in the short run, and that the short run is all that counts anymore.

Fifth, Republicans are a frustrated lot right now.  They know that Obamacare is unpopular, and have considerable evidence that it's going to be a disaster, but they have been repeatedly unable to repeal it, and fell one vote short in the Supreme Court of getting it overturned.  More broadly, while they tend to favor smaller government, they have seen (and, to be honest, have often participated in) the welfare state's getting bigger and bigger, to the point that it has accumulated a debt no sane person thinks we can pay off, and  --  perhaps even worse  --  no longer even vaguely resembles the limited government the Framers had in mind.

With that as their unhappy outlook, it can't be too surprising that some Republicans would vote to pare government spending anywhere they can and let the chips fall where they may.  Unfortunately for the rest of us, the chips  --  increased crime  --  won't take that long to fall.  

Lastly, Republicans, more even than the general public, have a bone-deep distrust of government.  Overall public confidence that the federal government can be trusted to do the right thing is now lower than it has been at any point since the Eisenhower administration, as the Pew Foundation has discovered.  Indeed, according to Pew, trust is now even lower than it was four years ago, when it had fallen from 73% under Eisenhower to 22% under Obama.

I noted a few years ago that the implications of a loss of trust that deep are dire. We are seeing a reflection of that now, I think, in the Republican votes for this bill. Some Republicans have just walked away from the notion that government can be trusted with anything at all, and are ready to toss out the crime reduction baby with the too-much-government bathwater.  

In a later post, I hope to sketch out how these concerns can be dealt with, and how we can preserve one of the few major government successes  -- suppressing crime with more serious sentencing.



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