Public unites, Congress gridlocks — there's a better way
© UPI Photo - Greg Nash

As governors choose sharply different responses to COVID-19, protestors pull down statues, and institutions everywhere rethink their role in racial justice, it’s easy to assume our nation is horribly divided. In fact, some remarkable areas of agreement are emerging from the tumult that followed the Memorial Day police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

For instance, a solid majority of Americans (and nearly half of all whites) say police officers are more likely to use excessive force in dangerous situations when the suspect is Black, according to a June poll from Monmouth University.

Other polls find that Americans, across party lines, are nearly unanimous in saying at least some change is needed in the nation’s criminal justice system. Among other things, they want clear standards on when police officers may use force, and consequences for those who use excessive force. Most also favor requiring all officers to undergo more extensive racial bias training.

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Finally, most Americans (Democrats, Republicans and independents) support sweeping police reforms such as a ban on chokeholds and racial profiling.

In light of this, it’s not surprising that Republicans and Democrats in Congress have tried to craft police-reform legislation. What should be surprising (but sadly, is not) is that the two parties are at loggerheads. In an all-too-familiar scenario, they are gridlocked by refusal to make the types of compromises essential for any legislation, big or small, to pass in a divided government and society like ours.

The tragedy is all the keener because the two competing bills – one from the Democrat-controlled House, one from the Republican-controlled Senate – have much in common. Both call for greater data collection among police agencies, especially when deadly force is used. Both call for more training for law enforcement officers and incentives for officers to wear body cameras.

Understandably, there also are some differences. But they’re hardly mountainous.

For instance, the House bill would ban chokeholds and any other pressure-on-the-neck techniques that restrict airways, declaring them civil rights violations. The Senate bill defines such practices more narrowly. Democrats would alter the legal concept of “qualified immunity,” so victims of police brutality could sue and seek damages. Republicans would not.

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Democrats want to collect data on all uses of force by police, whereas Republicans would limit it to cases of death or serious bodily injury. The chief Republican sponsor, Sen. Tim ScottTimothy (Tim) Eugene ScottLobbyists see wins, losses in GOP coronavirus bill Revered civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis lies in state in the Capitol GOP plan would boost deduction for business meals MORE (S.C.), urged Democrats to put their proposal “in an amendment and I’ll support it.” Yet, negotiations faltered.

Politicians whose top concern is what’s best for the nation, rather than scoring intra-party points back home, should be able to resolve these differences. Instead, too many senators and House members have fussed, fumed, and gone home empty-handed.

As NPR put it, “Senate Democrats, emboldened by a national outcry for reform of the country's law enforcement departments, blocked debate… on a Republican police reform bill that they said did not go far enough to address racial inequality.” Republican leaders fell well short of the 60 votes needed to proceed in the 100-member chamber.

At the same time, neither House nor Senate leadership seriously engaged the other party in shaping their respective bills. In the yesteryears of a functioning legislative branch, these were called House-Senate “conference committees.” Now they’re a dusty paragraph in civics textbooks.

Given the overwhelming public support for police reform, how can this be?

The reason is that too many lawmakers, in both parties, put their insatiable desire for reelection above the nation’s wants and needs. For so many, their only prospect for defeat is from a hard-right challenger in the next Republican primary, or a hard-left challenger in a Democratic primary. If they get to the November general election, they’re home free.

To win another term, these officials needn’t heed the cries of the majority of their district or country. They simply need to stay rigidly liberal or conservative enough to appease the relatively small number of ideologically driven voters who dominate party primaries.

How long can this continue? Even stalwart supporters of democracy will grow disenchanted if partisan politics continue to block clearly popular reforms. America, alarm bells are ringing.

The nonprofit, nonpartisan group No Labels is marshalling supporters nationwide to demand that our elected officials end this travesty and put country above party. And a group that No Labels helped inspire — the bipartisan House Problem Solvers caucus — stands as a model of hope.

The caucus’ 25 Democrats and 25 Republicans risk condemnation from their own ranks by being courageous enough to work across party lines for commonsense solutions to our nation’s needs. They’ve won some significant victories. But they can’t do it alone.

Politicians who continue to put party over country, reelection over all else, would be wise to hear the growing cry for greater equity, justice and decency in our nation. History won’t be kind to those who ignore it.

Liz Morrison is co-executive director of No Labels, a group that seeks to move Washington beyond partisan gridlock and toward solutions to challenges faced by the country.