Reparations bill wins new momentum in Congress

House legislation to form a commission to study whether black Americans should receive reparations for slavery is getting a significant boost from Democrats on the presidential campaign trail.

Rep. Karen BassKaren Ruth BassThe US treats asylum seekers so poorly Lawmakers visit African migrants at US-Mexico border Preventative measures are needed in child welfare policy, data shows MORE (D-Calif.), the head of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), suggested that action on a reparations measure sponsored by Rep. Sheila Jackson LeeSheila Jackson LeeOvernight Defense: Trump leaves door open to possible troop increase in Middle East | Putin offers immediate extension of key nuclear treaty Lawmakers to watch during Wednesday's impeachment hearing Lawmakers honor JFK on 56th anniversary of his death MORE (D-Texas) is all but certain, with Democrats now in control of the lower chamber and the idea gaining prominence on the national stage.

ADVERTISEMENT

Jackson Lee’s bill would form a commission to study the issue of reparations but does not call for black Americans to receive payments.

“I don’t think there needs to be pressure, we’re in charge,” Bass said. “It’s being discussed, I’m sure we’re going to get there.”

2020 hopefuls including Sens. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerTrump trade deal likely to sow division in Democratic presidential field Shooting in Jersey City leaves multiple people dead, including police officer Schumer to colleagues running for White House: Impeachment comes first MORE (D-N.J.) and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenTrump trade deal likely to sow division in Democratic presidential field Buttigieg says he doubts consulting work for insurer led to layoffs Trump supporters at Pa. rally 'upset' after Democrats introduce impeachment articles MORE (D-Mass.) are backing the legislation. Rep. Tulsi GabbardTulsi GabbardGabbard knocks Trump over handling of Pensacola air station shooting Gabbard calls for congressional inquiry over Afghanistan war report The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by UANI — House Dems charge Trump with abuse, obstruction of Congress in impeachment articles MORE (D-Hawaii), another presidential candidate, is a co-sponsor.

And on Wednesday, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) endorsed the idea, a pivot from his earlier statement of opposition to reparations payments.

“Absolutely I would sign that into law,” O’Rourke said of Jackson Lee’s bill during an interview with the Rev. Al Sharpton at his National Action Network convention in New York.

ADVERTISEMENT

The support from presidential candidates highlights how the idea of reparations is spiking in popularity in Democratic circles — particularly as a large field of candidates jockeys for support from African-American voters. 

Former Rep. John ConyersJohn James ConyersThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Dems release first transcripts from impeachment probe witnesses Hispanic Caucus dedicates Day of the Dead altar to migrants who died in US custody Today On Rising: The media beclowns themselves on Baghdadi MORE Jr. (D-Mich.) had introduced a reparations bill in every Congress since 1989, but the legislation was given little notice even with the nation’s first black president, Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaThe mullahs seek to control uncontrolled chaos Poll: Majority of Democrats thinks Obama was better president than Washington Obama urges Americans to get health coverage in new holiday video MORE, in office.

Jackson Lee, who took up the mantle from Conyers, said she’s been talking with House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold NadlerJerrold (Jerry) Lewis NadlerGOP calls for minority hearing on impeachment, threatens procedural measures READ: Articles of impeachment against Trump Trump, White House rip Democrats over impeachment articles MORE (D-N.Y.) about holding a hearing on her bill. Nadler is also a co-sponsor, and Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiTrump trade deal likely to sow division in Democratic presidential field Trump supporters at Pa. rally 'upset' after Democrats introduce impeachment articles California GOP candidate arrested on stalking charges MORE (D-Calif.) has put her considerable voice behind the effort. An aide said Wednesday that, if acted upon, the bill would move first through Nadler’s committee before reaching the floor.

“We tried to posture this legislation at the highest level of thought and seriousness. There is no humor. There is no request in the bill for a check or a pot of gold,” Jackson Lee told The Hill as she headed to a CBC meeting in the Capitol.

“I do think it has traction. People are not hesitating to openly support it and push for it. I think we have a very good chance of having a hearing some point.”

Rep. Bennie ThompsonBennie Gordon ThompsonJudge temporarily halts construction of a private border wall in Texas Hillicon Valley: FCC moves against Huawei, ZTE | Dem groups ask Google to reconsider ads policy | Bill introduced to increase data access during probes House GOP criticizes impeachment drive as distracting from national security issues MORE (D-Miss.), a prominent member of the CBC and a co-sponsor of the bill, characterized reparations as a commonsense way for the country to make amends for the historical injustices against African-Americans. The prominence of the issue among 2020 contenders has lent momentum to the effort, he said, “but it’s also a recognition that Africans who were brought here in bondage — that should not have occurred.”

“This country owes a lot [to the descendants of those Africans]. … As to what the remedy is, we need to look at it,” Thompson said, comparing the issue to the Japanese internments of World War II. Congress, decades later, passed legislation offering a formal apology — and $20,000 — to each of the surviving victims of that campaign.

“Obviously, slavery was a greater internment, and so it’s something that has to be looked at, absolutely,” Thompson said.

Not all Democrats back direct reparations payments.

The issue is divisive, and ahead of an election where Republicans and Democrats will be battling over the Rust Belt states of Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Ohio, it has the potential to split Democrats from white working-class votes.

In the presidential race, Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersTrump trade deal likely to sow division in Democratic presidential field Buttigieg says he doubts consulting work for insurer led to layoffs Trump supporters at Pa. rally 'upset' after Democrats introduce impeachment articles MORE (I-Vt.) has said he does not believe direct payments are the best way to address the needs of “distressed communities.”

“I think what we have got to do is pay attention to distressed communities — black communities, Latino communities and white communities — and as president, I pledge to do that,” Sanders said in interview with “The View.”

Rep. James Clyburn (S.C.), a CBC member and the third-ranking House Democrat, has long fought to eliminate racial disparities on jobs, wages, housing and wealth. But he’s repeatedly argued against reparations in the form of cash payments, saying it would simply be too difficult to implement.

“You’ve got to satisfy two problems, one of which is the legality of it and the other is the practicality of it,” Clyburn said in an interview last month.

Clyburn highlighted just one of the thorny questions a reparations panel would have to resolve, noting that mixed-raced people, following the Civil War, had access to certain schooling that black former slaves did not.

“Are mulattoes descendants of slaves? Yes, they are. But they got a leg up,” he said. “So I don’t know how you can fairly deal with that. That’s the practicality part.”

Clyburn is instead pushing for direct investments in the nation’s poorest regions. Known as the 10-20-30 plan, Clyburn’s model operates under the simple premise that federal development dollars are best spent in the areas of greatest need. Under his formula, federal programs must direct at least 10 percent of their funds to communities where at least 20 percent of the population has lived below the poverty line for at least the last 30 years.

On Wednesday, Clyburn and Booker introduced legislation that would expand that model, which already governs parts of federal spending, to a larger swath of programs.

“While genius is spread equally across ZIP codes, opportunity is not,” Booker said.

Jackson Lee’s bill has the same number adopted by Conyers: H.R. 40. That’s a nod to “40 acres and a mule,” the unfulfilled promise that Union leaders made to newly freed slaves in 1865.

She pushed back on the suggestion that disagreements in the Democratic caucus were delaying her legislation.

“There’s no hold up. You don’t move legislation overnight. I would never say there is a hold up,” Jackson Lee said. “The Judiciary Committee has been working on this. And we are very excited of the Speaker taking note of H.R. 40.”

The proposal would establish a committee charged with studying the institution of slavery in the U.S. — from its inception until the end of the Civil War in 1865 — and recommend ways to compensate living descendants.

CBC members pointed out that the idea of reparations is being discussed on the 2020 campaign trail because grass-roots activists are pressing candidates and congressional leaders to take up the issue.

“It’s coming from the streets,” one CBC member said.

In one example, Clyburn was pressed last month by an activist representing the group American Descendants of Slavery.

“Tell Nancy Pelosi to cut the check,” the activist said, in a video posted to Twitter.

Rep. Cedric RichmondCedric Levon RichmondBooker unveils legislation for federal bill to ban discrimination against natural hair Hillicon Valley: Senators ask Trump to halt Huawei licenses | Warren criticizes Zuckerberg over secret dinner with Trump | Senior DHS cyber official to leave | Dems offer bill on Libra oversight Senior DHS cyber official to step down MORE (D-La.), the immediate past chairman of the CBC, is a supporter of reparations and the idea of establishing a commission.

“I think it’s a good idea, especially if it’s in the form of education or tuition or something like that. But sometimes you let the experts tell you what they think it should be,” he said. “I think the commission is good because we need to see what the experts say would be the correct remedy.”