Rand Paul sweats the details

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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There’s a fine line between being a detail-oriented legislator and a pain-in-the-ass obstructionist. Rand Paul has been known to walk that line.

It’s not that he isn’t friendly. He is. But pleasantness is cold comfort when someone’s holding up your bill. “I think one of the things that gets overlooked too often,” says Doug Stafford, a top Paul aide, “is Rand working to make legislation better.”

A good example of this, Stafford believes, took place when Paul voted against the Ukraine aid bill. While Paul’s “no” vote made the headlines, on principle, he agreed with sanctions. The vote against the aid, Stafford says, reflected serious concerns about the loan guarantees (which he argued would largely end up in Putin’s hands).

As Stafford points out, Paul didn’t just vote “no” on final passage, either. He tried to strip funding in committee, supported lifting the energy export ban, and called for restarting the Eastern Europe missile defense. (What is more, in voting “no” on the aid bill, Paul was joined by Nevada Sen. Dean Heller — hardly some sort of fringe paleocon.)

Of course, none of this will matter to Paul’s critics, who are sure his “concerns” about lining Putin’s pockets were just a convenient excuse to vote “no” (while disguising his deep-seated isolationist tendencies.)

And maybe they’re right. Or maybe, as Stafford argues, Paul was simply being fastidious. Were it not for Paul’s history of holding up projects until his concerns are met, I would be more skeptical. But consider this example:

In October of 2011, California Senators Feinstein and Boxer called on Paul to “stop blocking legislation to strengthen safety regulations for underground pipelines…” (This was seen as an urgent bill — meant to address concerns after an explosion killed eight people in California.) Paul was blocking the rushed legislation — however, it was based on what he believed to be flaws in the hurriedly-crafted legislation. And so, on October 17, Paul announced an amendment to “fix the bill and its pipeline testing requirements…”

And you know what? It turns out that Paul wasn’t trying to kill the bill — he was trying to fix it. Here’s an excerpt the Los Angeles Times story that ran the next day:

The Senate unanimously approved a pipeline safety bill Monday that stemmed from a spate of incidents, including last year’s deadly explosion in San Bruno that killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes.

The measure had been held up by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who lifted his hold after reaching agreement with Democrats to add a key recommendation from the National Transportation Safety Board.

At least some of what Paul’s critics take to be evidence of his foreign policy apostasy is probably just proof of his penchant for making the perfect the enemy of the good.

Regardless, Paul’s team is well aware that he is in danger of being cast as outside the mainstream of conservative foreign policy. And they strongly reject the notion.

“Often his foreign policy ends up defying labeling, which is what makes some of the reporting on it tricky for people,” says Stafford. “He is neither a hawk nor an isolationist. He believes in a strong defense and engagement in the world. But he also doesn’t think every idea or bill is a good one. He works to make them better and supports them when that works.”

He’s also, it seems, a stickler for the details.

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Matt K. Lewis