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 LeeDemocrats press Nadler to hold Lewandowski in contempt Democrats bicker over strategy on impeachment Jackson Lee: 'Racism is a national security threat' MORE (D-Texas) that would form a national commission to study whether descendants of slaves should receive reparations.

ADVERTISEMENT

While the bill has been backed by Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold NadlerJerrold (Jerry) Lewis NadlerPelosi: Lewandowski should have been held in contempt 'right then and there' Nadler's House committee holds a faux hearing in search of a false crime Lewandowski says he's under no obligation to speak truthfully to the media MORE (D-N.Y.) and Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiTimeline: The Trump whistleblower complaint DC statehood push faces long odds despite record support Ukraine could badly damage both Donald Trump and the Democrats 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 Anthony BookerIowa GOP swipes at 2020 Democrats' meat positions as candidates attend annual Steak Fry Booker aide sounds alarm about campaign's funding 2020 Democrats defend climate priorities in MSNBC forum 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 McConnellDC statehood push faces long odds despite record support Overnight Energy: California, 23 other states sue Trump over vehicle emissions rule | Climate strike protests hit cities across globe | Interior watchdog expands scope of FOIA investigation | Dems accuse officials of burying climate reports Hillicon Valley: Lawmakers say Zuckerberg to 'cooperate' on antitrust probes | Dems see victory after McConnell backs election security funds | Twitter takes down fake pro-Saudi accounts 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 BassCBC marks 400th anniversary of slaves' arrival in US Senate could protect girls from sexual exploitation — but will it? King incites furor with abortion, rape and incest remarks 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 Levon RichmondTwo former Congressional Black Caucus chairmen back Biden Election security funds caught in crosshairs of spending debate Lawmakers weigh responses to rash of ransomware attacks 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 CohenThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump eyes narrowly focused response to Iran attacks Lewandowski, Democrats tangle at testy hearing Trump probes threaten to overshadow Democrats' agenda 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 GillibrandBooker aide sounds alarm about campaign's funding O'Rourke gun confiscation talk alarms Democrats Gillibrand relaunches PAC to elect women MORE (N.Y.), Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisWarren overtakes Biden in Iowa for first time: poll Iowa GOP swipes at 2020 Democrats' meat positions as candidates attend annual Steak Fry Warren avoids attacks while building momentum MORE (Calif.), Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenWarren overtakes Biden in Iowa for first time: poll Warren avoids attacks while building momentum Sanders unveils plan to eliminate Americans' medical debt MORE (Mass.), Bernie SandersBernie SandersWarren overtakes Biden in Iowa for first time: poll The polls are asking the wrong question Sanders unveils plan to eliminate Americans' medical debt MORE (I-Vt.) and Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharMSNBC 'Climate in Crisis' special draws 1.3M viewers in 8 pm timeslot The two most important mental health reforms the Trump administration should consider Sanders searches for answers amid Warren steamroller 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 JeffriesBadrun Khan to challenge Ocasio-Cortez in Democratic primary Lewandowski, Democrats tangle at testy hearing Words matter, except to Democrats, when it involves impeaching Trump 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 WilsonTen notable Democrats who do not favor impeachment Assault weapons ban picks up steam in Congress Democratic rep reconsiders wearing trademark hats because of 'racists who taunt me' 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.