In a Congress that is often intensely divided by partisan politics, Sen. Rand Paul is carving a policy niche for himself that allows him to work across party lines. Kentucky’s junior senator has proposed ten criminal justice reform bills, all of which have Democratic cosponsors. Along the way Paul says he hopes he’s able to change some minds within his own party, which has traditionally embraced a tough-on-crime philosophy.
“I try not to let my party label bind me and put me in a corner,” says Paul. “I am a Republican but I sometimes think the Republican Party should do some things differently.”
The second-term senator from Bowling Green appeared on KET’s Congressional Update to discuss his criminal justice reform proposals as well as his views on presidential power, federal spending, and state politics.
Crime, Punishment, and Race
Paul’s bipartisan criminal justice bills include a bail reform measure that’s cosponsored by California Sen. Kamala Harris, a drug offense sentencing bill with New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, and civil asset forfeiture reform with Virginia Sen. Mark Warner. The bills reflect Paul’s thinking on crime and punishment.
“I’ve always been someone who thinks that if you do something that hurts yourself but doesn’t hurt other individuals, we need to try to help you in some way, but we don’t need to necessarily make that a crime or put people in jail for long periods of time,” he says.
Paul’s legislation is also driven by the racial disparities he sees in the criminal justice system. For example, he says cocaine use has been relatively equal among whites and blacks, but he says blacks are far more likely to be jailed on drug-related convictions because the law treats crack cocaine use more harshly.
“You can have a white person doing almost exactly the same crime, but because it’s powder cocaine versus crack cocaine, they’re getting almost no prison sentences and some people were getting several decades-long prison sentences under the rules,” he says.
One solution, according to Paul, is to lessen the penalties for drug crimes. He also says he favors letting states decide whether to legalize marijuana.
“This doesn’t make the drug problem go away,” says Paul. “It makes the unfairness of the sentencing go away.”
The senator says he’s open to exploring a reinstatement of Pell Grant funds to inmates who want to take college classes. The 1994 crime bill made criminals ineligible to receive that tuition assistance. And he says he will continue to push for felony expungement. Paul says if Republicans want fewer people on public benefits, then they should allow more felons who qualify to expunge their criminal records.
“If they were still committing crimes, why would they want their record to be expunged?” he says. “These are people who have reformed, grown up, gotten older, want a job, but their record is preventing them from getting it.”
Paul recently broke with Kentucky’s senior Senator Mitch McConnell and voted for an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that would require President Donald Trump to get congressional authorization before taking military action against Iran. Paul says the United States Constitution clearly gives Congress the power to declare war, not the president. But he says that doesn’t mean presidents cannot defend the country if the situation requires it.
“If you have a ship in the Gulf of Oman near Iran and someone fires on you and you fire back, that’s not an act of war. That’s an act of self defense,” says Paul. “If you, the next day, drop 200 bombs on Tehran, that’s an act of war, and there’s no reason why in this modern age we can’t all get together and have a debate and vote on it.”
The senator also wants the nation to have clear goals before entering into an armed conflict.
“It’s a great responsibility for legislators to send somebody to war,” says Paul. “It’s our job to ask before we send anybody’s kids to war, what are we fighting for?”
As for the tensions with Iran, Paul says he can understand why Iranian leaders feel like the U.S. has already declared war on them by flying surveillance aircraft near their territory and by enacting tougher economic sanctions on the country. He says there should be more dialog between the two countries, not more sanctions.
“We need to deescalate the confrontations.” Paul says. “I think at this point there has to be a compromise, and maybe we offer to withdraw some of the sanctions in exchange for some kind of [good] behavior.”
Paul also wants to limit a president’s ability to declare national emergencies, such as when Trump declared an emergency to secure funding for the wall he wants to build along the U.S.-Mexico border.
In June, Paul and Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden introduced legislation that would allow a president to take emergency action for no more than 72 hours without congressional approval. Presidents could still act immediately to defend the nation in an emergency, but Congress would maintain its constitutional responsibility to serve as a check on the executive branch.
“If a president declares an emergency, it comes to us and more than half of us have to vote for it for him to be allowed the emergency,” says Paul. “That, I think, would be a better situation. It would get rid of any possibility of this president or any other president of any party from gaining too much power.”
“Democratic government with checks and balances is messy,” adds Paul. “You don’t always get what you want.”
Paul says he supports the efforts to protect the southern border, but he says the $4.6 billion in supplemental funding that Congress recently authorized to enhance security and address the humanitarian crisis should be taken from current spending.
“We have a $1 trillion deficit this year [and] a $22 trillion total deficit,” says Paul. “I think if you’re going to spend $4 billion in new money, you should take it from some place else in the budget to pay for that spending.”
Paul contends the federal government is not fiscally responsible, saying interest payments on the federal debt are pushing out other vital areas of government spending.
“I think that we could do better,” says the senator. “Every American family only gets to spend what comes in… so I think it’s important that government not think that they’re above the normal family economics.”
The senator says a balanced budget isn’t a dream but is actually achievable. Earlier this year he introduced what he calls a “Pennies Plan” that would reduce all federal spending by 2 percent a year for the next five years. Paul acknowledges that would mean less money for important government functions, like funding medical research, but he argues the pain would be limited.
“What do you think would happen if we had 1 percent less for a program?” asks Paul. “People would scramble to make it more efficient. They would work harder, and they would be forced to spend the money more wisely.”
Speaking Up for a Friend
Paul also waded into state politics to voice support for his Bowling Green neighbor and fellow Tea Partier Jenean Hampton, Kentucky’s lieutenant governor. In January, Gov. Matt Bevin dropped Hampton from the ticket for his reelection bid. The Bevin administration also fired two of Hampton’s staffers, allegedly without her knowledge.
Paul says Hampton, who he describes as a “big voice” within the Tea Party, deserves to be treated fairly in public and in private. When asked if the rift between Hampton and Bevin could hurt the governor’s chances for second term, Paul simply says that Bevin needs to unify the Republican Party.