Senator Tom Cotton waged a fierce battle against criminal justice reform in the Senate. When the votes were counted, however, only 11 of his colleagues supported his position that the First Step Act favors criminals over victims. Most Republicans in the Senate agreed with President Donald Trump when he tweeted that the bill “will keep our communities safer, and provide hope and a second chance, to those who earn it.”
While I line up with the conservatives and libertarians who disagree with Sen. Cotton’s vote on the First Step Act, the senator is coming under some undue criticism for his actions. As reported in this Democrat-Gazette article, a group of conservatives blasted Sen. Cotton for his stance on the bill. They made some good points about the legislation, urging Sen. Cotton to reconsider his stance. Then one of the participants said something truly stupid.
The American Conservative Union’s David Safavian said, “[Sen. Cotton] is a Trump ally, and he is undermining the president’s agenda. And I’d like to understand why he is undermining the president’s agenda.”
Safavian should re-read the Constitution. The president is not the boss of any U.S. Senator or Representative. Sen. Cotton answers to the people of Arkansas. They elected him to represent them. He has no constitutional duty to support or oppose any president’s agenda, regardless of whether or not they share the same party. Every member of Congress has the duty to make up his or her mind on legislation and vote accordingly.
The Founding Fathers designed our federal system so that the legislative branch acts as a check on the president, whom they feared would be too powerful. In recent decades, the checks-and-balances that should be provided by this branch have withered away as members of Congress have asserted their institutional prerogatives less and less. When there is unified party control of the two branches, Congress largely acquiesces to the president. When there is split control, any checks and balances that occur are often due to partisan bickering. That is unhealthy for our republic.
While many people today criticize Republican lawmakers for what they see as blind loyalty to President Trump, this is a symptom of their own partisan myopia. They fail to recognize that members of Congress from both parties began to prioritize partisan loyalty over loyalty to congressional prerogatives since at least the 1990s. I saw it first-hand working in the Senate at the end of the ‘90s into the 2000s. It definitely happened during the Obama Administration when the Democrats controlled Congress. What is occurring with President Trump and Congress today is nothing new.
Although the prioritization of party loyalty for members of Congress is not a new phenomenon, that does not make it right. Safavian’s criticism of Sen. Cotton for “undermining the president’s agenda” implies that the primary duty of a senator is to support the president’s agenda. Obviously, if a senator thinks that a president’s agenda is good for his or her state, then I’m sure that senator will support the president. But when there is a disagreement, the senator has a duty to do what he or she thinks is right, not what the president wants. If Sen. Cotton had serious reservations about the First Step Act and yet voted for it merely because the president supported it, then he would not be doing his job as a senator.
On criminal justice reform, I think that President Trump is right and Senator Cotton is wrong. But Senator Cotton is not wrong because he is bucking the president. No president determines what the “correct” position is on any issue. That determination is one that should be made by every member of Congress independently.
So if you are a conservative and you are going to criticize Sen. Cotton, do so on the substance of the matter, not on his break with the president.