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House hearing marks historic moment for slavery reparations debate

House hearing marks historic moment for slavery reparations debate
© Greg Nash

House Democrats on Wednesday will breathe new life into the debate over slavery reparations with a historic hearing on Capitol Hill.

The House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties will bring in big names like actor Danny Glover and author Ta-Nehisi Coates to generate media buzz around an issue that has languished in Congress for generations.

The hearing follows a bill from Rep. Sheila Jackson LeeSheila Jackson LeeBiden pledges support for Texas amid recovery from winter storm Biden turns focus to winter storm with Texas trip Obama says reparations 'justified' MORE (D-Texas) that would form a national commission to study whether descendants of slaves should receive reparations.

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While the bill has been backed by Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold NadlerJerrold (Jerry) Lewis NadlerHouse sets vote for George Floyd police reform bill Jim Jordan calls for House Judiciary hearing on 'cancel culture' House Judiciary split on how to address domestic extremism MORE (D-N.Y.) and Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiOn The Money: Democrats deals to bolster support for relief bill | Biden tries to keep Democrats together | Retailers fear a return of the mask wars Here's who Biden is now considering for budget chief Biden urges Democrats to advocate for rescue package MORE (D-Calif.), as well as the Democrats’ liberal base, it’s unclear where the legislation goes from here.

Reparations have also been a hot topic for 2020 Democratic presidential candidates vying for African American voters, a critical voting bloc in states like South Carolina, Alabama and Mississippi.

Sen. Cory BookerCory BookerHillicon Valley: High alert as new QAnon date approaches Thursday | Biden signals another reversal from Trump with national security guidance | Parler files a new case Senators question Bezos, Amazon about cameras placed in delivery vans Why do we still punish crack and powder cocaine offenses differently? MORE (D-N.J.), one White House hopeful, has authored a companion bill in the upper chamber to study reparations.

Booker will testify at Wednesday’s hearing, joining Glover and Coates, whose 2014 article “The Case for Reparations” reignited a national dialogue about the issue after it was published in The Atlantic.

However, some in the party are skeptical that Pelosi would bring the divisive issue to the full House floor during a crucial election cycle where Democrats are trying to hold the House and win back the Senate and White House.

The reparations bill would be a tough vote for swing-district and swing-state Democrats. And it would amount to a Democratic messaging bill since Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellGarland's AG nomination delayed by GOP roadblocks DOJ declined to take up Chao ethics probe Trump was unhinged and unchanged at CPAC MORE (R-Ky.) has signaled the bill would go nowhere in his chamber.

“I would be astonished if Nancy Pelosi brought that to the floor,” one House Democrat told The Hill on Tuesday. “She is very sensitive to ‘the will of the people,’ and I doubt reparations enjoys much public support.”

Added one Democratic chief of staff: “I don’t think it will move.”

Nadler has not set a date for marking up the bill in the full Judiciary Committee. And a Pelosi spokesperson declined to comment on a possible floor vote.

Still, leaders of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) are remaining optimistic. CBC Chairwoman Karen BassKaren Ruth BassHouse approves George Floyd Justice in Policing Act House sets vote for George Floyd police reform bill Lobbying world MORE (D-Calif.), a member of the Judiciary Committee, predicted the House would take action on reparations given that Democrats control the agenda and the floor.

And Rep. Cedric RichmondCedric RichmondPadilla has 'big Chuck Taylors to fill' in replacing Harris Bottom line Biden pledges action on guns amid resistance MORE (D-La.), the CBC chairman before Bass, said he hoped Wednesday’s hearing — the first focusing on the issue in more than a decade — indicates impending congressional movement.  

“I would be very disappointed if it did not — that’s what the goal is. We’re not having a hearing just for our health,” he continued.

“The real question and conversation has to be how to you repair the damage that was done and the remnants of slavery? The bill calls for our body to study it; I think that is warranted, so my assumption is it goes to the floor.”  

The hearing will examine “the legacy of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, its continuing impact on the community and the path to restorative justice.”

The subcommittee’s chairman, Rep. Steve CohenStephen (Steve) Ira CohenMissouri man indicted for allegedly threatening two congressmen Tim Ryan: Prosecutors reviewing video of Capitol tours given by lawmakers before riot House subcommittee debates reparations bill for Black Americans MORE (D-Tenn.), decided to schedule the hearing so that it falls on Juneteenth, a day marking the abolition of slavery in America.

Booker’s legislation is historic: It’s the only reparations bill to be introduced in the Senate after Reconstruction. Like Jackson Lee’s bill, the senator’s bill would establish a commission to examine the impacts of slavery in the U.S. — from its inception until the end of the Civil War in 1865 — and recommend ways to compensate the descendants of slaves.

The five other senators running for the Democratic nomination — Sens. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Senate Dems face unity test; Tanden nomination falls Gillibrand: Cuomo allegations 'completely unacceptable' Democrats push Biden to include recurring payments in recovery package MORE (N.Y.), Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisMichelle Obama says 'everyone was concerned' about potential violence at Biden inauguration Ella Emhoff, inauguration designer join forces on knitwear collaboration Who is the Senate parliamentarian and why is she important? MORE (Calif.), Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenHillicon Valley: High alert as new QAnon date approaches Thursday | Biden signals another reversal from Trump with national security guidance | Parler files a new case Senators question Bezos, Amazon about cameras placed in delivery vans Democrats worry Senate will be graveyard for Biden agenda MORE (Mass.), Bernie SandersBernie SandersOn The Money: Democrats deals to bolster support for relief bill | Biden tries to keep Democrats together | Retailers fear a return of the mask wars Democrats cut deals to bolster support for relief bill Hillicon Valley: High alert as new QAnon date approaches Thursday | Biden signals another reversal from Trump with national security guidance | Parler files a new case MORE (I-Vt.) and Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharAlarming threat prompts early exit, underscoring security fears Raimondo has won confirmation, but the fight to restrict export technology to China continues Pentagon prevented immediate response to mob, says Guard chief MORE (Minn.) — have all signed on as co-sponsors.

The Jackson Lee bill, the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act, has 64 co-sponsors, including Nadler, Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) and Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem JeffriesHakeem Sekou JeffriesDemocrats snipe on policy, GOP brawls over Trump Harris holds first meeting in ceremonial office with CBC members Democratic fury with GOP explodes in House MORE (N.Y.).

But even if the Jackson Lee bill clears the House, McConnell made it clear Tuesday he won’t take it up in the Senate, arguing it would be incredibly difficult to figure out who exactly should be compensated.

"I don't think reparations for something that happened 150 years ago for whom none us currently living are responsible is a good idea. We've tried to deal with our original sin of slavery by fighting a civil war, by passing landmark civil rights legislation. We elected an African American president," McConnell told reporters in the Capitol.

"I think we're always a work in progress in this country but no one currently alive was responsible for that, and I don't think we should be trying to figure out how to compensate for it,” he added. “First of all it would be pretty hard to figure out who to compensate.”

Some supporters of reparations have pushed for cash payments to descendants of slaves, but other ideas include college scholarships and subsidized home mortgages for African Americans.

The Capitol building itself, along with many other landmarks in Washington, was built by slaves.

Rep. Frederica WilsonFrederica Patricia WilsonAn attack on America that's divided Congress — and a nation Capitol Police report warned that Congress could be targeted three days before riot Democrats point fingers on whether Capitol rioters had inside help MORE (D-Fla.), a CBC member, said lawmakers owe it to the country to at least study and debate the idea of reparations.

“It would open up a conversation on the actual contributions that African Americans made to the building and the foundation of this nation,” Wilson said. “Every time I walk through the Capitol and bring students there, I explain how thousands of people were employed with no pay to build the Capitol and the city of Washington.”

“Thousands of Africans’ lives were lost in the building of the Capitol. These are names we will never know,” she added. “It’s hallowed ground you’re walking on.”

Wilson said she believes Pelosi is committed to the reparations issue; the Speaker, Wilson said, is planning to join CBC members on a trip to Ghana this summer to mark the 400th anniversary of the start of the transatlantic slave trade.

“Yes, I think she’s gonna put it on the floor,” Wilson said.

Jordain Carney contributed.