Why you should care
Because both sides agree that the criminal justice system is wack.
Our era has not seen much in the way of bipartisan cooperation, to put it gently. Instead: shutdowns and threats thereof, extreme legislative inaction and, from the president, creative maneuvering around Congress. But in his final year in office, President Obama has one last shot at meaningful legislative achievement: wide-ranging criminal-justice reform.
Here’s the funny thing. Obama’s last chance comes courtesy of one of his staunchest Republican opponents — a Utah libertarian who has delivered plenty of those government-shutdown threats himself, has demanded the complete repeal of Obama’s signature healthcare legislation and is, generally, a Tea Party paragon. Ushered into the Senate during the Tea Party sweep of 2010, Senator Mike Lee gets called an obstructionist quite often, but he has also made some powerful friends on the other side of the aisle, working on issues like criminal-justice reform, antitrust and privacy. Lee sat down for a conversation with OZY about his motivations, the possibilities of bipartisanship and how Congress can do better.
OZY: What was your motivation for working on a wide-ranging, bipartisan criminal-justice-reform bill?
U.S. Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah): Earlier in my career, as a federal prosecutor, I’d seen instances where minimum mandatory sentencing laws have produced sentences that are just categorically, almost undeniably, unjust. There was this man in his mid-20s, a father of two children, who was caught selling pot on three occasions. He was caught selling in relatively small quantities, but because he had a gun on his person and because of the way he was charged, he received a 55-year minimum mandatory sentence. Nobody thought that was a just sentence — not even the judge who imposed that sentence. And the judge later issued an opinion stating that only Congress could fix it. I remembered that.
OZY: What has it been like working on this bill?
Lee: I’ve been working on this criminal-justice effort for a few years now with Dick Durbin [the senior senator from Illinois, a Democrat]. He and I both were in agreement that our federal prison population has mushroomed. It’s increased 900 percent over the last 35 years. Some of this is a product of the over-criminalization of the law generally; some of it is the over-federalization of the criminal law. Part of it also lies within the fact that in the federal criminal-justice system, we’ve come to rely a lot on minimum mandatory sentences.
Now I’m not one who believes all minimum mandatory sentences are bad, but I do believe that because of the way they operate — the hard, rigid way they function — Congress has to pay attention to what they’re doing and how they’re working and, from time to time, needs to reassess whether we’ve struck the proper balance. It’s been a long process.
OZY: You’re known for straddling the aisle on the one hand, but also sometimes labeled another Republican obstructionist.
Lee: It happens. And when it does happen, it’s frequently inaccurate. To reduce anyone to a brief, overgeneralized assessment like that usually is an indication that you’re not accurately describing who that person is. Look, there are a number of issues that I regard as not distinctly Republican or Democrat. They’re just good government issues. Reform issues. This is one of them.
OZY: You’ve called for the Uber-ization of the U.S. capital to help encourage fresh thinking. What do you mean?
Lee: The best way to enable Congress to innovate is for individual lawmakers to attempt policy reform on their own, to dare to break out of traditional molds and assumptions and identify ways that they think reform is necessary or possible. Even if they don’t think it’s possible yet — a few years ago, very few would have predicted that criminal-justice reform of the magnitude we’re discussing now could have happened. But I believed, and Dick Durbin believed, that this was policy reform that was sufficiently important that the politics of the matter would catch up. If we did our job, we could bring our colleagues.
OZY: How do you remain effective as a legislator while also waging seemingly hopeless battles on issues like Planned Parenthood and Obamacare?
Lee: There are areas in which ideological differences between the parties are sufficiently rigid that we’re not going to have a “kumbaya” moment. There are a lot of areas where that’s not the case. You’ve pointed to a couple of the biggest stumbling blocks between the parties, and I don’t know that those are going to get resolved. My point is that just because those exist, there are still lots of other areas where significant bipartisan consensus is possible.
OZY: Is it strange, after standing against him so often, to be helping Obama achieve what might be the last major legislative achievement of his political career?
Lee: No, not at all. I’ve had a number of conversations with President Obama on this issue, going back several years, and I’ve worked with him and members of his administration on the USA Freedom Act, which I sponsored and passed into law in June. I’m thrilled the president is so supportive of this effort and I’m thrilled we agree on this area.