Last week — you might have missed this, and it would be completely understandable if you had — President Donald Trump signed into law the most substantial changes in decades in the nation's federal sentencing laws. The so-called First Step Act marked a real accomplishment by Congress, the president and the bipartisan effort that kept the effort going.
A couple of days later, the federal government shut down, with Congress and Trump at loggerheads over the president's demand for $5 billion to help build his long-promised wall on the border between the United States and Mexico.
And so it goes these days in Washington, D.C. — one step forward from time to time, and then many, many steps back.
The shutdown, the third in the two years of the Trump administration, doesn't seem likely to be settled anytime soon, although you never know about these things. Trump apparently is betting that his chances of re-election hinge entirely on his ability to keep his base happy, and many of the voters in that base want to see the wall built. (It was, after all, the No. 1 pledge candidate Trump made during his campaign.)
As for Congress, it doesn't return to Capitol Hill until later this week, and with Democrats about to take over control of the House of Representatives after the first of the year, there likely won't be much appetite for compromise on this issue.
So it seems as if the bipartisan accord that led the way to the First Step Act would be noteworthy, if only as the exception to the rule of partisan gridlock between parties and between the legislative and executive branches of the government.
But the act is a significant accomplishment on its own terms. And it says something about the power of unlikely coalitions to break through the stalemate that bedevils the federal government these days.
The bill addresses the tough-on-crime sentencing laws that the United States embraced as part of the war on drugs — laws that led to the imprisonment of thousands of Americans for nonviolent crimes and which fueled a huge boost in the federal prison population.
The bill gives judges more discretion when sentencing some drug offenders and boosts prisoner rehabilitation efforts in hopes that those efforts reduce recidivism rates. It reduces the life sentence for some drug offenders with three convictions ("three strikes") to 25 years.
The senators who were key in getting the measure passed included folks from both sides of the aisle, including Republicans Charles Grassley of Iowa and Mike Lee of Utah, along with Democrats Cory Booker of New Jersey and Richard Durbin of Illinois. The measure was supported by groups who typically find themselves at loggerheads, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Conservative Union and the extremely conservative Koch brothers. Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, was a big supporter of the law, which probably helps explain the president's support.
Not everyone got everything they wanted in the bill. (Memo to the White House and members of Congress: This is what they call compromise. It's not necessarily a bad thing.)
In fact, it likely will require a compromise of some sort to reopen the federal government, although there's a reason why this particular shutdown seemed to be met mostly with a shrug in D.C.: Although there's no denying the hardship involved in furloughing 800,000 federal employees, who are either working without pay for the time being or not working at all, Congress already had passed bills funding three-quarters of the federal government, including the Defense and Veterans Affairs departments. That considerably eases the impact of the shutdown.
Even so, this is no way to run a railroad — or a government, for that matter. We fear more of these shutdowns and additional blustery confrontations over at least the next two years. (mm)