The Senate's Latest (Unnecessary) Scandal: A Criminal-Justice Commission

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Republicans have filibustered another seemingly non-controversial bill. In this political climate, there's simply too much obstruction and not enough governance.

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In a speech on the Senate floor Tuesday, Sen. Jim Webb (D- Va.) complained about Republican obstruction saying "the mood in this historic body has frequently become nothing short of toxic" / Reuters

Another month, another dismaying example of a smart measure stymied in Congress by Republican intransigence. This time, 43 GOP members of the Senate blocked passage of legislation that would have created a new National Criminal Justice Commission, a bipartisan group designed to help figure out how to bring some order to the chaos that currently exists in the nation's criminal justice systems. The cops supported the bill.

The American Civil Liberties Union supported it. But Senate Republicans wouldn't even allow a merits vote on it. On October 19th, they filibustered.

Predictably, the primary sponsor of the measure, Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.), was furious. One of the more conservative members of the Democratic caucus, and someone with legitimate street cred when it comes to law and order, Webb took to the Senate floor Tuesday and delivered these biting remarks: 

Mr. President, eleven days ago all but four of the Republicans in this body filibustered a common-sense piece of legislation that would have created a national commission designed to bring together some of the best minds in America to examine our broken and frequently dysfunctional criminal justice system, and to make recommendations as to how we can make it more effective, more fair, and more cost-efficient.

This legislation was the product of more than four years of effort. It was paid for. It would have gone out of business after 18 months. It was balanced philosophically. It guaranteed equal representation among Democrats and Republicans in its membership. I must say that at first I was stunned at the filibuster at the hands of 43 Republicans. But on the other hand, Mr. President, it is impossible not to notice, over the past two years, the lamentable decline in bipartisan behavior in this body, even in addressing serious issues of actual governance. I say this with a great deal of regret, both personally and politically.

 You can watch the video for yourself:

Here's more from Sen. Webb, calling out specific obstructionists, in what surely will become part of the Democratic political narrative during the 2012 campaign:

We worked with liberals. We worked with conservatives. We worked with law enforcement. We sought the views of many Republicans. And we also worked in close coordination with the other body. Toward that end, it's interesting to note that in the last Congress the House of Representatives approved this same legislation by voice-vote -- it was not even considered controversial. In fact, Congressman Lamar Smith, Republican, now the Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, was a co-sponsor of the legislation.

But let's speak frankly, Mr. President. In the aftermath of the 2010 elections, and in anticipation of the 2012 Presidential election, the mood in this historic body has frequently become nothing short of toxic. And in that environment, even this carefully developed and much-needed legislation is suddenly considered controversial. And not only controversial, it was even alleged to be unconstitutional. Just before the vote, Senator Coburn of Oklahoma said, "We're absolutely ignoring the U.S. Constitution if you do this." Senator Hutchison from Texas said, "This is the most massive encroachment on states' right I have seen in this body."

Mr. President, in all due respect, I'm pretty comfortable with the legal education that I received at the Georgetown University Law Center... And there is nothing in the Constitution that precludes the Congress from asking some of the best minds of America to come together and give us advice and recommendations on the entire gamut of challenges that face our criminal justice system. Certain Senators may not like that idea; that is their prerogative. They may not even want to hear the advice -- they may not even want to believe that there is a problem in our criminal justice system. But to claim that the Constitution precludes this process is nothing short of absurd.
Serious issues of actual governance. Sen. Webb is right -- that's what this legislation was and is; a necessary and practical effort by the federal government to address a serious problem that is bad and getting worse. And yet for all the senator's work, and all the bipartisanship the idea garnered beyond Capitol Hill, he could not overcome persistent Republican hostility. I would call it "mindless" hostility since it's so destructive but, of course, it's not "mindless" at all. It's all part of some grand political plan to make Democrats look inapt and inept.

You use the Constitution as sword when you want to. You use it as a shield when you want to (Sen. Coburn's remark above is priceless). And no matter what you figure out a way to do nothing that would benefit the American people. The demise of this legislation ultimately will cost the country a ton of money. And the absence of necessary recommendations from a blue-ribbon Commission will guarantee further injustice to thousands of Americans in the justice system. This is your Senate today -- snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic, 60 Minutes' first-ever legal analyst, and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice. He is also chief analyst for CBS Radio News and has won a Murrow Award as one of the nation's leading legal journalists. More

Cohen is the winner of the American Bar Association’s 2012 Silver Gavel Award for his Atlantic commentary about the death penalty in America and the winner of the Humane Society’s 2012 Genesis Award for his coverage of the plight of America’s wild horses. A racehorse owner and breeder, Cohen also is a two-time winner of both the John Hervey and O’Brien Awards for distinguished commentary about horse racing.

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