Democrats are part of the problem in Ferguson, too

The halls of an adjourned Congress are ringing with passionate calls to address the civil unrest in Ferguson, Mo., which resulted from the lethal shooting of an unarmed black teen by police. The response of militarized law enforcement who view protestors as "the enemy" and the city as a war zone has become a particular focus. But, even if the cries are sincere, every congressional word or movement until November will reflect election maneuvering.

Democrats quickly staked a claim to the moral high ground. Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) and Bobby Scott (D-Va.) are prominent members of both the House Judiciary Committee and the Congressional Black Caucus. Along with Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), they initiated a call for a congressional hearing on the use of excessive force by American law enforcement. The Republicans will almost certainly cooperate, if only because it would be impolitic not to do so. Moreoer, the hearing would be post-election and not necessarily lead to a change in law or policy.

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A key battleground will be whether the transfer of military equipment from the Department of Defense (DOD) to local law enforcement agencies should continue. Through a letter to his congressional colleagues, Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) announced plans to introduce the Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act, which would substantially halt the transfers.

Even if the bill makes the agenda of a reconvened Congress in September, which is unlikely, both parties must realize it would not pass. One reason is gridlock. Consider appropriation bills that are considered to be priority legislation. Only four bills for fiscal year 2014 have been completed, with over a dozen more pending.

Another reason: Republicans are manifesting less enthusiasm than Democrats. There are exceptions. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has become a prominent voice for demilitarization and for racial concern regarding police brutality. In an Aug. 14 TIME article, Paul stated that "there should be a difference between a police response and a military response." His stand should be filtered not through the November elections but through his ambition to make a presidential run in 2016. In general, however, Republicans have been guarded about ending the transfers, although they remain open to some restrictions.

But even Democrats have reason not to push the militarization of police issue too far. Congress acted collectively to create the problem. Arguably, Democrats bear more responsibility than Republicans for the blurring of police and military.

Defense News commented on Aug. 14 that "In the early 1990s, lawmakers made it easier for local law enforcement agencies to acquire military grade items via something very familiar to the US defense sector: the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA)." Specifically, the NDAA for fiscal years 1990-1991 contained Section 1208. Section 1208 authorized the "transfer of excess [DOD] personal property" to use in the war on drugs. It specified that property would be transferred without cost to the recipient agency. The absence of cost encouraged police departments to request as much equipment as possible.

The Democrats were a majority in both houses when Section 1208 passed. Nothing went through Congress without their approval.

The NDAA for fiscal year 1997 changed Section 1208 into Section 1033, which allowed the transfer of military equipment for use in all bona fide law enforcement. Again, recipients paid nothing more than shipping. On Aug. 2, Stars and Stripes described what seems to be a typical 1033 participant. Waterton, Conn. is approximately the same size as Ferguson. The city recently acquired a $733,000 armored vehicle for the price of picking it up: $2,800.

Transfers increased after 9/11, partly due to a Department of Homeland Security grant program that virtually all of Congress endorsed repeatedly. Nor has a two-term Democratic president slowed the process. The New York Times noted on June 8 that "During the Obama administration ... police departments have received tens of thousands of machine guns; nearly 200,000 ammunition magazines; thousands of pieces of camouflage and night-vision equipment; and hundreds of silencers, armored cars and aircraft." The FAQ for the 1033 program claims to supply "[o]ver 8,000 federal and state law enforcement agencies from all 50 states and the U.S. Territories."

Democrats point accusing fingers at the Ferguson police who used mine-resistant armored vehicles, military-grade rifles, riot gear and camouflage uniforms against civilians of this city of some 21,000 residents. Some will point fingers at Republicans who resist demilitarization. But all of Congress facilitated the armored vehicles now rolling down the streets of small town America. If any in Congress are liable, then all of them are. And voting records are easily procured.

McElroy is a research fellow at the Independent Institute.