Op-Ed

At the Sessions hearing, the business of government is ... hysteria

Code Pink may get a bad rap, disrupting as it does seemingly every significant event on Capitol Hill. But the most hysterical performances at Tuesday’s serially interrupted Senate confirmation hearing for attorney general nominee Jeff Sessions came not from scrappy protesters, but from the august senators within.

“I would like to begin,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said to Sessions, “with the second largest criminal industry in this country, which is now — believe it or not, by revenues produced — human sex trafficking.”

In other words, the California senator wished to lead off her critical cross-examination of the nation’s likely next top cop with a factually insane claim that will probably give him more power.

In order for “human sex trafficking” to be the second largest criminal industry in the United States, it would at minimum need to supplant illegal narcotics (roughly $100 billion a year, according to a 2014 Rand Corp. estimate), or Medicare fraud (in the ballpark of $60 billion, according to the Government Accountability Office in 2015). So distant is reality from those numbers that even the commonly cited figure of $9.8 billion a year for all trafficking — and keep in mind that human smuggling dwarfs sex trafficking — was given “four Pinocchios” by Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler.

Feinstein wasn’t done. “Trafficking victims,” she warned, average “12 to 14” in age. (“Four Pinocchios,” judged Kessler.)

These fake numbers have consequences. Congress has leaned on such bogus statistics by periodically ratcheting up the penalties of the 2000 Trafficking Victims Protection Act — the 2015 reauthorization, for example, made websites liable for sex trafficking if a minor is found to have advertised services there.

“In 2014 alone, 31 states passed new laws concerning human trafficking,” Elizabeth Nolan Brown wrote in Reason magazine 15 months ago. “Since the start of 2015, at least 22 states have done so.”

And who is being prosecuted? Besides publishers such as Backpage.com, which shut down its “Adult” section this week after relentless pressure (including concurrent hearings on Capitol Hill on Monday), the criminals apprehended are disproportionately adult females who work in the sex industry by choice.

There is a well-established connection between moral panic over disfavored behaviors and laws that produce grotesque injustices. What boggles the mind is how this clear causation seems to elude lawmakers even in the midst of a conversation about the enforcement of federal law.

In fact, the best parts of Tuesday’s hearings came when senators grilled Sessions over his opposition to scaling back previous hysteria-based overreaches, such as disparities in sentencings involving crack and powder cocaine. (The Alabama senator voted in favor of one such reform, but stands opposed to making the recalibrated sentences retroactive for people still languishing in prison.)

Yet those moments were outnumbered by Judiciary Committee members trying to egg Sessions on to enforce laws against the monsters hiding under their beds. Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) favorably cited a new Utah bill that describes pornography as a public health “epidemic,” and encouraged Sessions to reopen the Justice Department’s porno task force. As recently as President Obama’s first term, that unit was producing prosecutions that could have put pornographers in jail for as long as 32 years.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) was a one-man hysteria generator, with each question designed to give the federal government more power. What did Sessions think about the Obama administration interpreting the Wire Act in a way to “allow online video poker”? “I was shocked,” Sessions replied.

“Do you believe the threats to the homeland are growing or lessening?” Graham asked. “Growing,” said the likely next attorney general. Gitmo? Keep ’er open. Try suspected terrorists like criminals? Hell no!

There are excellent reasons to oppose Sessions’ nomination, beginning with his enthusiastic support for the evil practice of civil asset forfeiture, by which the government can lawfully seize the property of citizens who haven’t even been charged with a crime. (Ninety-five percent of asset forfeiture cases, he has ludicrously claimed in the past, involve people “who have done nothing in their lives but sell dope.”)

But maybe the most terrifying thing about the man is that he so faithfully reproduces the basic posture of his fellow senators: Everything is a threat, evidence be damned, and the federal government needs more power to keep us safe.

We are at a point in this country where officials in the Justice Department can’t even tell you the number of federal crimes, the average American (according to the calculations of the civil libertarian Harvey Silverglate) commits “three felonies a day,” and there is no observable political penalty for grotesquely exaggerating real problems. Jeff Sessions might not be a good pick for AG, but maybe he’s the honest one.

Matt Welch is editor at large of Reason, a magazine published by the libertarian Reason Foundation, and a contributing writer to Opinion.

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