Democrats debate timing and wisdom of reparations vote

Greg Nash

Reparations advocates notched a historic victory this week when a House committee approved, for the first time, legislation to study whether Black Americans should receive restitution for slavery.

Now those lawmakers want a vote on the floor.

But while Democratic leaders in the last Congress had promised quick action on the reparations bill if it passed through the House Judiciary Committee, they’re treading more carefully this year.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) supports the proposal but is leaving the vote calendar decisions to House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). Hoyer suggested Thursday that the bill will reach the floor at some point but stopped short of committing to a vote, saying instead that he would converse with Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.).

“I’m going to talk to the chairman, see what we’re going to do with it. I presume it’ll get a floor vote,” Hoyer said.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), the bill’s lead sponsor, all but guaranteed the measure will eventually reach the floor, saying Democrats are aiming to stage the vote roughly two months from now to commemorate Juneteenth, the holiday marking the emancipation of slaves following the Civil War.

“I’ve spoken to all of leadership,” Jackson Lee said. “I feel very comfortable with where we are.”

Yet some Democratic moderates are less than thrilled about the prospect of voting on such a politically divisive piece of legislation heading into the 2022 elections, a historically difficult midterm cycle for the party of the sitting president. They’d rather focus on popular bread-and-butter issues — the economy, infrastructure, fighting COVID-19 — than dive into racially charged legislation such as reparations that might alienate voters in their battleground districts.

“This is not an issue that people in a lot of those districts are concerned about right now,” said one Democratic lawmaker, who requested anonymity to speak freely on a sensitive topic.

“The No. 1 issue that we should be tackling right now is COVID. No. 2 is COVID. No. 3 is COVID — and getting out of the economic crisis,” they added. 

Managing the reparations debate will require a tricky balancing act from Democratic leaders. The reparations concept is popular with the base, particularly the African Americans who fueled a large part of Democrats’ election successes last year, when they won control of the House, the Senate and the White House.

The ongoing trial over the killing of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis — combined with this week’s shooting death of another Black man, Daunte Wright, by an officer in the Minneapolis suburbs — has only stoked the Democrats’ push for legislation promoting racial justice.

Yet heading into 2022, Democrats also don’t want to provide any political ammunition to Republicans, who are already hammering President Biden for the migrant wave at the southern border and proposed tax hikes to pay for new infrastructure spending. With the Democrats clinging to their House majority by just a handful of seats, GOP leaders are practically salivating at the prospect of winning back the chamber.

“There are enough headwinds right now between redistricting, issues on the border and tax hikes. We don’t need other issues right now,” said the Democratic lawmaker.

“We can keep the majority but only if we don’t blow it in terms of picking the wrong issues to fight on at this moment,” they added.

A moderate Democratic lawmaker echoed those concerns, warning the party will pay a political price if it passes reparations but not some of the other more popular bills that will provide centrists cover — and campaign talking points — when the midterms draw near.

“If we do a good infrastructure bill, if we fix immigration and if we do a deal on police, then this is fine. But let’s not pretend this is going to sell to the districts we need [to keep the majority] if that’s all we do,” said the lawmaker, also speaking anonymously to be candid.

“We can’t let this become the transgender bathroom issue of 2022,” they added.

Rep. Tom Emmer (R-Minn.), head of the House GOP’s campaign arm, declined to comment.

“I haven’t given it much thought,” he said Friday.

The debate over whether to compensate the descendants of slaves is hardly new to Capitol Hill. The late Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) introduced a reparations bill in every Congress since 1989 before he resigned in 2017. Jackson Lee has since taken up the cause, even keeping the same bill number that Conyers adopted: H.R. 40 — a reference to “40 acres and a mule,” the unfulfilled promise that Union leaders made to newly freed slaves in 1865.

Jackson Lee’s bill would create a commission charged with studying the long history of slavery in the United States — from its inception in 1565 until the end of the Civil War in 1865 — and recommend ways to compensate living descendants. It would not provide direct payments to those descendants, nor does it propose any other specific remedial policies.

Behind Nadler, the Judiciary Committee approved the legislation late Wednesday night, marking the first time that Congress has ever voted on the concept.

The GOP opposition appears to be unanimous. Republicans are rejecting the composition of the commission, whose members would be hand-picked by Democratic leaders and outside organizations “that have historically championed the cause of reparatory justice.”

“By the way they designed the commission, there’s no way a Republican would vote for it, because there’s no Republican put on the commission,” said Rep. Jim Jordan (Ohio), senior Republican on the Judiciary panel.

Jordan also predicted that, if empowered, the panel would inevitably land on the recommendation that slavery’s descendants be given direct cash payments — an idea that even some of the strongest supporters of reparations have opposed.

“It’s called reparations, right? Come on,” Jordan said. “Democrats are trying to redefine every other word, so I guess they’re trying to redefine reparations.”

In the face of the GOP opposition, Hoyer is also pushing Biden to create a reparations committee of his own from the White House — an idea that would prevent moderate Democrats from having to take a tough vote in Congress.

“The chances of this bill [passing] in the Senate are pretty dim,” Hoyer said. “So I’m going to urge him to do it. I don’t know whether it’ll be a substitute, but I think we ought to do it.”

That idea is already winning the favor of some Democratic reparations supporters, who are adding an asterisk: They want Congress to have some say over the composition of the commissions.

“It’s a wise strategy,” said Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.). “So long as it tracked the provisions of H.R. 40, I think it would be good.”

Jackson Lee acknowledged that she and other reparations advocates have some work to do in the coming weeks to win over some of the skeptical moderates in the caucus. She’s helping to write a committee report on the bill, adding, “We want that report to be as informative as convincing.”

“Support is mounting. It’s unbelievable. Members are coming on the bill,” she said. “But we’re going to be well prepared.”

Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio), head of the Congressional Black Caucus, is also predicting the bill will reach the floor this year. The attacks from Republicans are inevitable, she argued, but shouldn’t prevent Democrats from trying to rectify America’s brutal slave history — and its ongoing legacy of racial inequality.

“I think you will find people who on one side [who] will think that it doesn’t do enough, and there will be others who think it does too much,” Beatty said. “The unique thing is it speaks to the issue of doing the right thing.”

Tags Civil War Hank Johnson Jerry Nadler Jim Jordan Joe Biden John Conyers Joyce Beatty Nancy Pelosi Reparations Sheila Jackson Lee Slavery Steny Hoyer Tom Emmer
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