Presidential-election years are tough on the legislative process. All the attention shifts to the White House combatants. Partisan polarization reaches new levels of toxicity. And ultimately everyone (especially those in the party not occupying the White House) figures it’s better to wait and let the new president put his or her stamp on things. More practically, the legislative calendar gets squashed down to maybe 6 months, with only a couple of those genuinely fit for getting stuff done. Throw in the usual array of members causing turmoil as they pursue the presidential nomination themselves, and things really start to get weird. It is the rare bill, members acknowledge, that has a prayer of moving forward in the midst of this circus.
This year, the one policy area Hill denizens have pointed to as having real potential for movement is criminal-justice reform. For years now, the issue has been gaining public support across the ideological spectrum. Obama wants it. So do the Koch brothers. More hopeful still, there is now a concrete piece of legislation, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, that enjoys significant bipartisan backing, including from many conservatives you might expect to be lock-’em-up types. (Senators Mike Lee and John Cornyn are both big fans.) Unfortunately, among the members clouding the bill’s prospects is an unusual suspect: a moderate—at least by current standards—New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte.