Sometimes new members of Congress take some time to get settled in before proposing legislation. Not Rand Paul, the new Republican senator from Kentucky. Paul inherited many traits from his father, Rep. Ron Paul: like his dad, Rand is a doctor who entered politics to advance a fiercely held commitment to the family’s quirky ideology. (The enthusiastic young volunteers for Ron Paul’s 2008 presidential campaign called it “Goldwater conservatism” in reference to Barry Goldwater, the patron saint of small-government conservatives, not in reference to Paul’s desire to return to the gold standard.) And this week it became apparent that—like his father, who has introduced many quixotic bills such as the Federal Reserve Board Abolition Act—Rand Paul intends to regularly introduce legislation that has no realistic chance of passing.
But while Paul might be expected to take after his father in this regard, the causes he has espoused have been surprising. Whereas Ron Paul has focused his career on fiscal conservatism and foreign-policy isolationism, Rand Paul is promoting socially conservative positions.
On Monday he announced he is joining Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) in cosponsoring the Life at Conception Act. The law would declare that a person’s life begins at conception. Paul and Wicker reason that by declaring fetuses to be legal persons protected under the Constitution’s 14th Amendment, which guarantees equal protection under the laws, it would override the constitutional right to an abortion that the Supreme Court found in Roe v. Wade. Of course, granting a fetus all the rights of a person might lead to interpretations that—ironically, given that Paul campaigned on a strong commitment to privacy and liberty—would vastly expand government power. For example, if a pregnant woman smokes or drinks alcohol, or simply eats unhealthily, could she face prosecution for reckless endangerment of a child? In any case, Paul confidently predicted that “passage of the Life at Conception Act would reverse Roe v. Wade without the need for a constitutional amendment.”
But he is not averse to amending the Constitution when necessary. On Thursday he and Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) introduced a resolution that would amend the Constitution to prevent children born to illegal immigrants from gaining automatic citizenship. Under the current interpretation of the 14th Amendment, which Paul and Vitter oppose, citizenship is given automatically to anyone born on U.S. soil. So Paul wants to expand the 14th Amendment to cover the fertilized embryos of American citizens while restricting it to exclude the babies of illegal immigrants. It’s not clear where the fetus in an illegal immigrant’s uterus would fit into this equation.
It’s notable that Paul has decided to start his career with multiple pieces of legislation that take a staunchly conservative stance on a contentious social issue. During the 2010 campaign there was much chatter about how the Tea Party movement was focused on economic and fiscal issues rather than on the cultural battles—like gun control, gay rights, abortion, and immigration—that played a prominent role in previous Republican campaigns. While some of the high-profile insurgent Republican candidates, such as Christine O’Donnell in Delaware, had a long history of promoting social conservatism, Paul was regarded as the epitome of the new GOP. Paul opposes the Patriot Act and the federal war on drugs, which was an electoral liability for him. The fact that he is focusing on social issues suggests that the new crop of Republicans in D.C. may not be any less socially conservative, or any less interested in social issues, than their predecessors.
Or maybe it’s just a sign that the traditionalist wing of the GOP is resurgent and will be getting more attention in the months ahead. Some major conservative institutions, like the Family Research Council and the Heritage Foundation, are boycotting the upcoming Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) to protest the inclusion of GOProud, a gay organization. Several potential 2012 Republican candidates, including Ron Paul, are expected to speak at CPAC. It will be interesting to see how much time they devote to social issues.