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U.S. Representative Robert Scott '73

hot seats, cool heads

U.S. Represenative Robert Scott

How did the BC Law School ethos affect you?

My first year at BC Law School was the last year that Father Drinan was the dean. He set the atmosphere for service. He believed in helping others, he was a strong supporter of civil rights and civil liberties. When I started at Boston College Law School, [he] really helped me understand the ethos.

Describe your own style as leader:

In terms of leadership style, you try to identify problems. My personality is research based, fact based, to support my positions. A lot of people use anecdotes and stories and emotion, but I feel a lot more comfortable based on a scientific research approach to what works and what doesn’t work.

Examples of your leadership style?

We’re still working on juvenile justice reform: I’ve introduced the Youth Promise Act, which focuses more attention on investment in getting young people on the right track and keeping them on the right track, rather than waiting for them to mess up and then getting into a bidding war on how much time they will serve, based on some slogan or sound bite.

So it’s better to take out the emotion?

When you are focused on a research approach, it’s easier to compromise because everybody agrees on what the facts are. And usually, if everybody agrees on the facts and agrees that research has shown some things work and some don’t work, it’s a lot easier to come to a conclusion.

Take mandatory minimum sentences. They’ve been shown to waste taxpayers’ money, as well as not reduce crime, as well as occasionally violate common sense. If you have a mandatory minimum sentence, the judge has no discretion but to impose the minimum sentence.

And other slogans such as trying more juveniles as adults; every state already tries the most heinous youth offenders as adults, so if you apply that strategy you are talking about the marginal children, who would be tried as adults under a change in the law. The research is clear that you will actually increase the crime rate. But because these slogans poll well, a lot of people advocate that position. All the research is clear that if you try more children as adults, the crime rate will go up because the adult court can only let the child walk out of court or lock them up with adult drug dealers, robbers, and murderers. The juvenile court judge can impose education, psychological services, and even family services to get the young person back on the right track.  All the research shows that one who is housed with adult thugs is much more likely to commit a crime again in the future than those who had services that a juvenile court judge can provide. The research on that is clear.

One anecdote: Right after Columbine, juvenile justice reform had disintegrated into partisan nonsense; the House appointed a behind-the-scenes task force of about 20 House members, evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, to see what we could do. It was interesting, we could all invite experts, we had weekly meetings, week after week, listening to experts without the cameras rolling. I pointed out at the end of eight weeks that not a single witness had anything good to say about mandatory minimum, trying more juveniles as adults, zero tolerance, throwing students out of school with no services. In fact, virtually all of the suggestions had nothing to do with the criminal justice system. If you want to reduce gang membership and juvenile crime, it was virtually all proactive prevention and early intervention. That was consistent with the research. And as a result of that task force, we passed bipartisan legislation that provided more resources to get young people on the right track and keep them on the right track: prevention and early intervention resources. We haven’t funded it nearly at the level that needs to be funded.

Some were concerned that if they stuck with process, there would be a bad result. My position was, if you go through a thoughtful, deliberate process, reviewing the research, then an early intervention and prevention strategy will win.

On the legislative battle to treat crack cocaine like powder cocaine:

The old crack law had people with small amounts of crack, about a weekend’s worth, being subjected to five years, mandatory minimum—for five grams. And only 50 grams would get you 10 years mandatory minimum whereas you’d need 500 grams of powder cocaine to get any mandatory minimum.

It turned out that the people convicted of crack offenses were overwhelmingly African Americans. And those convicted of offenses involving powder were much more likely to be white. And as the research pointed out, there was no pharmacological justification for the difference. The only thing you had was a racial disparity, where black defendants were punished much more severely for what was essentially the same crime. The really atrocious part of it was that people really on the fringes of drug operations—girlfriends, or someone who may have taken a message, and technically part of the drug conspiracy—would be sentenced as part of the whole conspiracy, which created really bizarre situations where people with very little criminal involvement were getting sentences exceeding those applied to murderers and kidnappers.

As we came up with examples, and showed the disparity and the lack of pharmacological difference and worked with the sentencing commission, it was clear something needed to be done. Other than inertia—people tough on crime don’t like to reduce penalties—there was really very little articulated opposition. You can make progress.

That was another example of how research and data can be very helpful in making a case.

On fact-based research:

We see that issue in the budget discussion. Some of the discussion, if you listen to the debate, you’d think that some of my colleagues don’t appreciate the fundamental principles of arithmetic. At some point, you really need to recognize the fundamental principles of arithmetic.

You need to recognize that if you start a discussion on how to solve a trillion dollar deficit problem, when the discussion starts off with tax cuts, you know the rest of the discussion isn’t going to be serious.

The House budget that passed has a 10-year, $4 trillion asterisk…. You tell the Ways and Means Committee to come up with $4 trillion—the super committee couldn’t come up with $1 trillion, after several months of work. So the idea that someone is going to come up with $4 trillion to fill in that hole in the budget just isn’t realistic.

Examples of effective leaders?

John Warner: he really epitomizes the concept of Virginia gentleman, and he also was a recognized expert on armed services issues. You have someone who appreciates decorum but does his homework and is a recognized expert on the issue.

If you go through President Kennedy’s “Profiles in Courage,” you find people who stood up for what was right, even though they realized there may be serious political consequences. There are plenty of examples of that.

People make jokes about the principles of crime policy. No good politician will ever vote against a crime bill named after somebody. It doesn’t matter what’s in it. If it’s named after somebody, it’s just bad politics to vote against it. That doesn’t make any sense. I violate that principle frequently.

What could you improve?

I just do the best I can and don’t worry about it—just work hard and do the best you can. I tend not to look back at what could have been. I’d rather look forward and do the best I can on what’s in front of me.

Part of the fact-based approach is that you are dealing with facts and research rather than personalities. To the extent that you can take personalities out of it, you can work with somebody the next day. The Virginia delegation does well with that. The delegation covers the philosophical perspective of the House, but we are able to work together because if we have a disagreement, we don’t criticize each other. If you have something to say about legislation, that’s fine, but you don’t have to say something about the individual.

We tend not to criticize each other. We’ve got 11 members in the House; there are 424 other members who can say it. John Warner really set the standard for this behavior. He was the dean of the delegation. He made it a point to emphasize the importance of working together. If something affects a military base, or for example affects aircraft carriers in southeast Virginia, the members and their staffs are able to work together. I’ve seen some delegations where people are not even on speaking terms. Then you wonder how you can represent your constituents if the member next door isn’t helping.

The Virginia delegation makes an effort to try to work together. On the national philosophical issues, we realize people will have different opinions and move on. But if something affects Virginia, we do everything we can to move together.

Is changing your mind a failure of leadership?

If you have based your position on facts and research and analysis, if the facts change or if there’s new research, you can articulate exactly what the difference is.

If the state of the art of the research was that a particular position made sense, and subsequently you have more in-depth research and it raises questions, then people can see what happened. If you’ve taken a position based on a political poll, and then the people switch on you, then you have very little basis other than a finger in the wind to justify your position. That’s when you look a little silly.

If you voted this way one time and you are asked why you changed, you can say questions have been raised about the research, and based on better research, I’ve come to a different conclusion. Or you can say that what the experts predicted would happen didn’t happen.