Tom Cotton, Senate Republicans try to capitalize on stimulus checks going to prisoners

GOP senators suddenly irate that checks will go to prisoners — which also happened under Trump bills they supported

Published March 8, 2021 1:34PM (EST)

Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., arrives in the Capitol for the Senate Republicans lunch on Tuesday, March 10, 2020 (Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)
Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., arrives in the Capitol for the Senate Republicans lunch on Tuesday, March 10, 2020 (Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

A trio of Senate Republicans have attempted to capitalize on a provision within the coronavirus relief bill making its way through Congress that provides $1,400 stimulus checks to the roughly 1.4 million people incarcerated in prisons and jails nationwide as evidence that the Democratic-sponsored package is bloated and full of wasteful spending.

Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., has led the charge on this supposed issue, although he voted for previous relief legislation that included the exact same provision. Like nearly everything else in and around the massive $1.9 trillion relief bill, this issue is being embraced as a symbolic culture-war battle on which to challenge the Biden administration and Democratic leadership on Capitol Hill.

"Look how crazy some of the Democrat ideas are. They had a chance on Saturday morning to stop checks from going to prisoners, from going to the Boston Marathon bomber, for instance," Cotton said on "Fox & Friends" Monday morning. "It just goes to show how radical their ideas are."

Cotton supported both previous stimulus packages, which also supplied incarcerated people with checks. His media blitz deriding the provision began as Biden's relief measure began to advance in Congress. Neither he nor any other Republican raised the issue under the Trump administration, which supported the previous aid bills.

In response to an inquiry from Salon, Cotton's office responded that in the wake of the first stimulus passed last spring, known as the Cares Act, the IRS initially excluded prisoners from receiving payments, but was ultimately forced to reverse that directive after a judge ruled in October that incarcerated could not be the sole reason to deny someone the $1,200 payments. During Senate debate on the second relief bill last fall under then-Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Cotton lacked the ability to offer amendments, according to his spokesperson, and was forced to make an up-or-down vote on the entire legislative package.

"Whatever the unintended consequences of past legislation, Democrats had a clear-cut chance this time around to join Republicans in stopping notorious criminals from getting checks," Cotton press secretary James Arnold said. "Prisoners getting checks is no longer an oversight by bill drafters, Republican or Democrat. It's a purposeful choice by the left."

Cotton has used high-profile criminals, such as Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof, to advance his messaging, arguing that these are the sorts of people Democrats seek to protect. His proposed amendment over the weekend to prevent direct payments for inmates was shot down along party lines just before the Senate vote to pass the overall bill, which is expected to pass the House and be signed into law by President Biden later this week.

Democrats decided to continue including incarcerated people in the list of eligible recipients in order to ensure that families of those behind bars would not be punished economically for the actions of a family member. Proponents of nixing prisoners from the package argue it would save taxpayers nearly $2 billion.  

Cotton is not the only Republican senator who has latched onto the issue and sought to bring it to the forefront of the debate over how to combat the pandemic's devastating social and economic impact. GOP Sens. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana and Ted Cruz of Texas joined Cotton's effort to amend the mammoth package during the "vote-a-rama," or marathon voting session, this past weekend. Cassidy also supported the prior two stimulus measures that included checks to prisoners, while Cruz only voted for the first of the two, known as the CARES Act.

"Prisoners do not pay taxes. Taxpayers pay for their every need. Inmates cannot stimulate the economy," Cassidy said in a statement over the weekend. "This is a perfect example of non-targeted, inappropriate and total waste of spending. It's ridiculous that this is in the bill."

Cassidy offered an identical amendment in February during a separate marathon voting session, aimed at barring checks from going to anyone who was currently incarcerated.

Cruz labeled it "irresponsible" to send direct payments to anyone behind bars.

"The mismanaged priorities in this bill are detrimental to America and I was proud to join my colleagues in trying to close this egregious loophole," Cruz said in a statement.

None of the lawmakers' offices responded to a request for comment concerning their members' past support of stimulus packages that included the same provision. 

"Bipartisanship is not determined by a single zip code in Washington, D.C. It's about where the American people sit and stand, and the vast majority of the American people support the American Rescue Plan, including Republicans," White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters last week. "I think, really, the question is, why are Republicans in Congress who aren't supporting this package outliers in where the American public is?"

By Ramsey Touchberry

Ramsey Touchberry is a national political reporter based in Washington. He formerly covered Congress for Newsweek.

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Bill Cassidy Brief Coronavirus Relief Mass Incarceration Prisoners Republicans Senate Ted Cruz Tom Cotton