Congress mulls response to Ferguson

Getty Images

When Congress returns to Washington this week from their long summer recess, lawmakers will waste little time weighing a legislative response to last month's turmoil in Ferguson, Mo.

The violent stand-offs that followed the fatal shooting of an unarmed black teenager by a white police officer set off a firestorm of congressional criticism over the police response to public protest. Although the saga has largely faded from the headlines, a number of lawmakers will resuscitate it in coming days in order to highlight various proposals designed to prevent another similar incident. 

ADVERTISEMENT
Senate Democrats will hold a hearing Tuesday to examine the "militarization" of police departments; a House Democrat will introduce legislation to rein in a federal program providing military equipment to local law enforcers; a leading Senate Republican is mulling his own legislative approach to the police crack-down in Ferguson; and members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) plan to use the high-profile event to promote existing bills addressing a range of race-based issues, including police brutality, profiling, youth development and criminal justice reform.

Legislation on such thorny issues has little chance of moving through a highly polarized Congress, especially given September’s short legislative calendar and the political hurdles posed by the looming midterm elections. But that's not stopping the loudest critics of the police activity in Ferguson, who are hoping the chaos and publicity surrounding the tragic episode marks a watershed moment in how law enforcement is conducted across the country.

"This kind of response by the police has become the problem instead of the solution," Sen. Claire McCaskillClaire McCaskillClinton campaign chair jabs at Trump's age Election-year politics: Senate Dems shun GOP vulnerables The Trail 2016: Miss Universe crashes campaign MORE (D-Mo.), head of the Homeland Security Committee's subpanel on finances, said last month. "Today is going to be a new start; we can and need to do better."

McCaskill's subcommittee will hold a hearing Tuesday to examine the  Pentagon's 1033 program, which arms local police with surplus military equipment.

Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.), meanwhile, is leading the charge in the House. The CBC member is poised to introduce legislation scaling back the 1033 program by banning the transfer of specific military grade equipment — including grenade launchers, acoustic cannons and certain armored vehicles — from the Defense Department to local police precincts. The bill would also establish new reporting requirements designed to ensure that transferred equipment isn't lost, stolen or misallocated.

Johnson spokeswoman Carole Mumford said Friday that the bill is likely to be introduced the week of Sept. 16. She said it has bipartisan support but declined to name co-sponsors.

"This is a bipartisan bill and we expect to have strong support from both sides of the aisle," Mumford said in an email.

Sen. Rand PaulRand PaulHow low is the bar for presidential candidates, anyway? Lawmaker seeks to investigate Obama's foreign tax compliance law Funding bill rejected as shutdown nears MORE (R-Ky.), another fierce critic of the police response in Ferguson, is also mulling legislation to address the issue, his office said Friday. A spokesman said Paul first wants to sit down with staff upon his return to Washington "to see which direction he wants to go."

Sens. Patrick LeahyPatrick LeahyOvernight Tech: TV box plan faces crucial vote | Trump transition team to meet tech groups | Growing scrutiny of Yahoo security Leahy wants Judiciary hearing on Yahoo Overnight Cybersecurity: FBI probes possible hack of Dems' phones | Trump's '400-pound hacker' | Pressure builds on Yahoo | Poll trolls run wild MORE (D-Vt.), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and Carl LevinCarl LevinThe Fed and a return to banking simplicity What Our presidential candidates can learn from Elmo Zumwalt Will there be a 50-50 Senate next year? MORE (D-Mich.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, have also questioned the 1033 program in the wake of Ferguson. 

Levin has written letters to both Defense Secretary Chuck HagelChuck HagelCreating a future for vets in DC Republicans back Clinton, but will she put them in Pentagon? There's still time for another third-party option MORE and Attorney General Eric HolderEric H. HolderLawyer claims death threats after anti-Black Lives Matter lawsuit Adviser: Obama can’t ‘erase decades’ of racism Airbnb enlists civil rights leaders in discrimination fight MORE asking for a review, a spokeswoman said Friday, but he has no plans to stage a hearing in his panel — yet. 

"We will await the outcome of these reviews before deciding on any specific legislation," spokeswoman Kathleen Long said in an email.

Leahy's office did not respond to a request for comment.

Across the Capitol, CBC leaders, among the sharpest critics of the events in Ferguson, are hoping to use the tragedy to highlight a slew of related bills they've introduced throughout the year. The lawmakers are pushing proposals to combat racial profiling, overhaul the criminal justice system, tighten the nation's gun laws and establish mentoring programs designed to keep kids out of trouble.

Behind Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, the Democrats have called on Chairman Bob GoodlatteBob GoodlatteHow the White House got rolled on the Saudi-9/11 bill Overnight Defense: Congress overrides Obama 9/11 veto | Pentagon breathes easy after funding deal | More troops heading to Iraq Congress votes to override Obama for first time MORE (R-Va.) to hold hearings on the excessive use of police force when Congress returns.

Goodlatte, however, doesn't share their urgency. The Virginia Republican has said he's awaiting the results of several ongoing investigations into the Ferguson saga before deciding if Congress has a role to play in response. His position remains unchanged as of Friday, a spokeswoman said.