One of the most common explanations for Congress’s current dysfunction tells a story of an institution hopelessly gridlocked due to an ever-widening political divide between Republicans and Democrats. This diagnosis offers a straightforward and convincing explanation for why American politics seems so polarized. Take one look at the impeachment inquiry drama and one might believe that the gap is unbridgeable.
But recent work on a major political issue provides a hopeful example of suggesting something more complex is at play.
The criminal justice debate previously had a reputation as a marquee example of zero-sum political gamesmanship. The partisan split on the issue was notably laid out by the controversial “Willie Horton” attack ad from then-Vice President George H.W. Bush’s 1988 presidential campaign, which helped build the dichotomy of tough-on-crime Republicans and soft-on-crime Democrats in the public’s mind.
According to Vox senior correspondent German Lopez, the similarly-controversial 1994 crime bill was partially interpreted as a “chance for Democrats — including the recently elected president, Bill Clinton — to wrestle the issue of crime away from Republicans.” The legacy of the bill now serves as a stand-in for the intense battles over which party was tougher on crime and remains an inter-party debate among Democrats to this day.
Previous partisan clashes between Republicans and Democrats on criminal justice issues appear unrecognizable in Washington today. Instead of competing amongst themselves over who can claim the “tough-on-crime” image, the parties have made tremendous strides working to forge a bipartisan consensus on how to reform America’s criminal justice system for the better.
The First Step Act remains the brightest example of this breakthrough, and it provides a roadmap for how Congress can rediscover the value of persistent debating and legislating to achieve meaningful policy reforms.
Initially, the issue seemed like just another instance of Congress deferring a conflict-rife issue because it presented an inconvenient political headache. NBC news correspondent Leigh Ann Caldwell pointed out that “Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) had refused to bring any criminal justice reform bill for a vote before the midterms, believing it would be too difficult a campaign issue for his members.” Despite Sen. McConnell’s opposition, senators in both parties (with the useful assistance of Jared Kushner and other White House officials) continued to discuss and debate how to achieve a consensus position.
It wasn’t a simple matter either. Sens. Mike Lee (R-UT) and Tom Cotton (R-AR) wrote dueling op-eds on their diverging perspectives on criminal justice reform. Reports during the bill’s formation consistently highlighted Sen. McConnell’s concern over how the issue would “publicly split his party,” a matter that breaks up the neat Team Red vs. Team Blue image of Washington that the public assumes is the case and party leaders depend on for elections.
Even so, the deliberation and coalition-building necessary to form effective legislation went on and resulted in a bill that passed 358-36 in the House and 87-12 in the Senate to ultimately be signed into law by President Trump.
According to a Washington Post report, the First Step Act has made the release of over 3,100 federal prisoners possible by “[shortening] sentences for some inmates — partly through a change in the credit they are given for good behavior — and [increasing] job training and other programs.” NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice highlights how the law’s changes, namely banning the shackling of pregnant women and programs aimed at curbing recidivism, improve conditions for those currently in prison and aim to reduce mass incarceration in the United States.
Congress’s efforts on criminal justice reform have made a palpable difference in people’s lives, and these outcomes should serve as an inspiration for how to constructively approach the myriad other complex issues facing Americans. Congress’s approach to criminal justice reform serves as a reminder that despite appearances, our political parties are not as hopelessly divided as we might assume.
While there certainly are issues where it is easy to distinguish Republicans from Democrats, public policy questions from immigration to health care to our ever-growing national debt show that it is more often the case that the parties are just as divided amongst themselves.
What makes a difference is how willing members of Congress are to put in the hard work of persuading wary colleagues to achieve real reform. The First Step Act is a signature achievement of one such sustained effort, and Congress should look to the law’s journey to being passed as an inspiration for building sturdy coalitions around other major issues. As with the First Step Act, those efforts stand to make a difference in the lives of countless Americans.
That’s an achievement worth more than any attempt at short-term political showmanship.