PALM SPRINGS, CALIF. — Criminal-sentencing reform proponents in Congress are “hopeful” that Vice President Mike Pence will be an ally, helping them to work with the new law-and-order administration to pass legislation to cut mandatory minimum sentencing for drug-law offenders.
“I’ve got reason to be hopeful,” House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz told reporters at a morning session of the Seminar Network, a large group of wealthy libertarian and conservative donors gathered in Palm Springs by Charles and David Koch.
Pence and President Donald Trump ran a campaign with a frequent law and order theme, including promises to crack down on violent crime and to help communities hit by the scourge of opioid addiction. His pick to lead the Department of Justice, Sen. Jeff Sessions, has been a stanch congressional opponent of federal-level reform, maintaining that the problem of over-criminalization is at the state — not federal — level. (RELATED: Three Republican Senators Kick Off Koch’s First Massive Donor Conference In Age Of Trump)
Speaking to reporters alongside Sen. Mike Lee, also of Utah, Chaffetz said, “Gov. Pence, having been a governor, he understands this. In the end, he’s done some wise things. And I also think you will see concerted support from conservative governors who will buoy up any support in the White House.”
“If you’re going to be tough on crime, you better be smart about it. And there are hardened criminals who do need to spend the rest of their lives in prison.”
But, he added, we need to fix the problem of repeat offenders spending years in prison for drug crimes.
Doug Deason, a Seminar Network donor with an interest in sentencing reform, highlighted the White House’s new legislative director, Marc Short, as another reason to be hopeful. Before joining the administration, Short was a longtime adviser to Pence and a lead deputy in the libertarian Koch network. “He cares passionately about criminal justice reform,” Deason said.
Deason, a Texas businessman who is president of Deason Capital Services, was less enthusiastic about Sessions, telling reporters, “I’m glad they got him out of the Senate, they got him out of the way!”
Chaffetz defended Sessions, however, pointing to the Fairness in Sentencing Act the Alabama senator shepherded through in 2010, reducing the difference between sentences for crack cocaine and powder cocaine.
“I think last year we were caught up in presidential politics… and I think he’s in a different position now,” Chaffetz said.
Criminal-sentencing reform is a tricky business with no guarantees. “Right now, the prospects for such legislation seem good, given that lawmakers from both parties have been wrangling with a reform bill for months,” Politico reported nearly two years ago, in July 2015. (RELATED: Mike Lee Is Certain The Senate Will Confirm Trump’s Supreme Court Nominee)
“We were so close last time,” Lee, a member of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, lamented to reporters at the seminar.
A close friend of Sen. Ted Cruz, Lee urged Trump to quit in October and declined to endorse him throughout the election. Chaffetz went back and forth, endorsing, then withdrawing after the publication of a video showing Trump making lewd sexual comments, then deciding to vote for him without endorsing. “I will not defend or endorse [Trump], but I am voting for him,” Chaffetz tweeted at the end of Octover. “[Hillary Clinton] is that bad. [Clinton] is bad for the USA.”
Both men represent Utah’s quieter, more conflict-adverse, Mormon Republican electorate.
Held twice a year, the seminars are a gathering place for the Seminar Network, a large group of wealthy donors interested in libertarian causes. This weekend’s seminar, held in the temperate desert outside of Los Angeles, will be the first since Trump’s election and inauguration. The network spent hundreds of millions on advertising and advocacy for limited-government politicians — namely, Republicans — running for the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives, but notably stayed out of the presidential primaries and race. The network is co-chaired by Charles Koch Institute President Brian Hooks and Mark Holden, general counsel for Koch Industries. (RELATED: As Trump Presidency Dawns, Kochs Plan To Bring Hundreds Of Millions To Bear On Next Two Years)
Called “A Time to Lead,” the meeting is hosted at the Renaissance Indian Wells Resort and Spa, and is focused on local, grassroots initiatives Americans can take in what Hooks called “the key institutions of society”– “education, community, business and government.” (RELATED: Charles Koch Calls For Action: ‘We Might Not Have An Opportunity Again Like We Have Today’)
There are around 550 individuals included in the “principals” network meeting, which requires at least $100,000 donation to the network. In addition to these invited people, there are approximately 150 staff and speakers, Seminar Network spokesman James Davis told reporters. There is also a larger press presence than any previous conference has allowed.
Editor’s Note: Christopher Bedford was a fellow at the Charles Koch Institute in 2010.