Senate Republicans urgently need to embrace criminal justice reform

Senate Republicans urgently need to embrace criminal justice reform
© Anna Moneymaker

With the 115th Congress in the midst of its lame duck session, the White House and a group of Republicans are making a final attempt to pass criminal justice reform. Put simply, this legislation is right, it is reasonable, and its success would be momentous for several reasons. For one, the passage of this bill would help reform a broken system that for decades has disproportionately harmed the black community and inflamed racial tensions. Furthermore, it would be a display of bipartisanship that has been absent for far too long, and one that is desperately needed.

To be sure, lawmakers need to cooperate, and they need to start with issues where both Republicans and Democrats can get on board. The passage of criminal justice reform would ultimately demonstrate that both sides can come together and find common ground. Given the divisiveness of our politics and the harshness of our rhetoric, this show of unity would certainly be valuable and hopefully provide a work plan for members of the 116th Congress, which will be reconciling a House controlled by the Democrats and a Senate controlled by the Republicans for two years.


This bill passed easily in the House and has received vocal support from the Trump administration, including from Vice President Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceLouisiana's Democratic governor forced into runoff 2020 general election debates announced Trump's concerning vision for international religious freedom MORE, who advocated for the passage of the bill to Senate Republicans. He rightly argued that this legislation would give the Republicans an easy and politically advantageous win in this session. The bill has also garnered strong support from Democrats, who have long awaited such reform.

However, it does not seem as though the bill will glide so easily through the Senate. A number of more conservative Republicans are staunchly opposed to the bill, including Senators Tom CottonThomas (Tom) Bryant CottonBipartisan senators want federal plan for sharing more info on supply chain threats On The Money: Fed officials saw rising risk of recession | Ocasio-Cortez, Cruz blast NBA for 'outrageous' response to China | Prospects dim for trade breakthrough with China Ocasio-Cortez, Ted Cruz join colleagues blasting NBA for 'outrageous' response to China MORE of Arizona and Joe KennedyJoseph (Joe) Patrick KennedyOcasio-Cortez taps supporters for donations as former primary opponent pitches for Kennedy The 13 House Democrats who back Kavanaugh's impeachment Rep. Joe Kennedy has history on his side in Senate bid MORE of Louisiana, who feel that the latest version is too far to the left. Among other provisions, the bill reduces disparities in sentencing between crack and powder cocaine, would lower mandatory minimum sentencing for drug felonies, and overarchingly addresses the issue of what many have called the mass incarceration of black Americans.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellFurious Republicans prepare to rebuke Trump on Syria Republicans wrestle with impeachment strategy Mattis warns 'ISIS will resurge' without U.S. pressure on Syria MORE does not appear to be swayed by the White House strongly backing the bill, nor by the fact that it has received nearly bipartisan support in Congress. Arguably, the passage of the bill may complicate the Senate map in 2020, when Republicans will be defending almost double the number of seats as Democrats, many of which are in southern states that take a hardline stance on crime, and may not support such reforms. To be sure, however, success of this bill will be good for Republicans as a whole. It would demonstrate that the president is willing and able to work across party lines for the good of the nation.

In my experience working in the White House, shaping policy across party lines leads to both meaningful reform as well as electoral success. After the Republicans took back control of the House in the 1994 midterm elections, the Democrats worked with Republicans in Congress towards a balanced budget and welfare reform, both of which had bipartisan support. In 1996, President Clinton won his second term by a landslide.

It is unclear whether McConnell and the Republican leadership will end up bringing the bill to the floor for a vote. McConnell and others seem to have publicly taken the position that there are other more important issues to bring to the forefront during this limited session, and that there will always be another chance to pass criminal justice reform in the new year. However, in the new year, with the new Congress, compromise on such a bill is likely to be more difficult, considering that failure to pass it could ignite progressive Democrats, a group that will surely push for a new bill that is much further left and more disagreeable to Republicans.

Indeed, the passage of this legislation could not be more urgent. It is true that we do have other incredibly vexing issues to address going forward, such as dealing with our debt and deficit, fixing health care, improving infrastructure, and most importantly, as I argued in these pages last week, immigration reform. Resolving the most pressing issues of our nation can only be done on a bipartisan basis, and indeed, both sides working together is the only way that we can achieve any meaningful reform.

I hope that McConnell and the Republican leadership will embrace this bipartisan effort to reform a broken and costly criminal justice system by bringing this legislation to a floor vote in the Senate. Ultimately, the way to start working towards the goal of bipartisan cooperation is by doing something that we can do, that there is a consensus to do, and that will inflict positive change. Criminal justice reform does just that, and it is now more important than ever that we usher in this change for the nation.

Douglas E. Schoen (@DouglasESchoen) served as a pollster for President Clinton. A longtime political consultant, he is also a Fox News contributor and the author of 11 books, including “Putin’s Master Plan: To Destroy Europe, Divide NATO, and Restore Russian Power and Global Influence.”