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 LeeSheila Jackson Lee: Harris has 'taken us to the mountaintop' in Martin Luther King Jr.'s sermon Democratic attorneys criticize House Judiciary Democrats' questioning of Barr Steyer endorses reparations bill, commits to working with Jackson Lee 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 NadlerBy questioning Barr, Democrats unmasked their policy of betrayal Chris Wallace: Barr hearing 'an embarrassment' for Democrats: 'Just wanted to excoriate him' Apple posts blowout third quarter MORE (D-N.Y.) and Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiCongress exits with no deal, leaving economists flabbergasted Trump says he'll sign USPS funding if Democrats make concessions Pelosi calls Trump attacks on mail-in voting a 'domestic assault on our Constitution' 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 BookerNew Jersey governor to announce state will move to mostly mail-in voting for November The Memo: Trump attacks on Harris risk backfiring On The Money: Pelosi, Mnuchin talk but make no progress on ending stalemate | Trump grabs 'third rail' of politics with payroll tax pause | Trump uses racist tropes to pitch fair housing repeal to 'suburban housewife' 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 McConnellMcGrath reshuffles campaign in home stretch to Senate election GOP senator draws fire from all sides on Biden, Obama-era probes Chris Wallace rips both parties for coronavirus package impasse: 'Pox on both their houses' 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 BassBlack women are ambitious — that's why we need more in office Bass on filling Harris's Senate spot: 'I'll keep all my options open' Newsom says he has already received a number of pitches for Harris's open Senate seat 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 RichmondHillicon Valley: 'Fortnite' owner sues Apple after game is removed from App Store | Federal agencies seize, dismantle cryptocurrency campaigns of major terrorist organizations Lawmakers introduce bill designating billion to secure state and local IT systems Experts warn mail-in voting misinformation could threaten elections 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 CohenTennessee Rep. Steve Cohen wins Democratic primary Democrats exit briefing saying they fear elections under foreign threat Texas Democrat proposes legislation requiring masks in federal facilities 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 GillibrandIn the next relief package Congress must fund universal COVID testing Expanding our health force can save lives and create jobs simultaneously Sanders offers bill to tax billionaires' wealth gains during pandemic MORE (N.Y.), Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisOn The Money: Economists flabbergasted after Congress leaves with no deal | Markets rise as the economy struggles | Retail sales slow in July Trump touts NYC police union endorsement: 'Pro-cop all the way' USPS workers union endorses Biden, citing threat to postal service 'survival' MORE (Calif.), Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenOvernight Energy: Major oil companies oppose Trump admin's methane rollback | Union files unfair labor practice charge against EPA USPS inspector general reviewing DeJoy's policy changes Former Obama speechwriter Favreau: 'Hilarious' some media outlets calling Harris a moderate MORE (Mass.), Bernie SandersBernie SandersFormer Obama speechwriter Favreau: 'Hilarious' some media outlets calling Harris a moderate Trump to counter DNC with travel to swing states Progressives look to flex their muscle in next Congress after primary wins MORE (I-Vt.) and Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharElection security advocates see strong ally in Harris The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - The choice: Biden-Harris vs. Trump-Pence California Democrats back Yang after he expresses disappointment over initial DNC lineup 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 JeffriesTrump says no Post Office funding means Democrats 'can't have universal mail-in voting' Jeffries on Senate coronavirus bill: 'Totally irrelevant' Gohmert tests positive for COVID-19 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 WilsonHouse passes bill establishing commission to study racial disparities affecting Black men, boys Florida county official apologizes for social media post invoking Hitler  GOP struggles to confront racial issues 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.