House Lawmakers Advance Historic Bill To Form Reparations Commission

Apr 14, 2021
Originally published on April 15, 2021 10:27 am

Updated April 15, 2021 at 1:43 AM ET

A House committee has voted to move forward with a bill that would establish a commission to develop proposals to help repair the lasting effects of slavery. The vote came nearly three decades after the bill was was first introduced.

Fresh debate over the issue of reparations for the descendants of enslaved people comes amid a national reckoning over race and justice.

The House Judiciary Committee took up the bill on Wednesday evening. The vote was the first time the committee has acted on the legislation since former Democratic Rep. John Conyers initially introduced it in 1989. This year, the legislation has the support of more than 170 Democratic co-sponsors and key congressional leaders.

The bill now moves to a full House vote. Should it pass, it would then face a vote with the evenly divided Senate.

Texas Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, the lead sponsor of the bill, H.R. 40, has said that bringing it to a vote on the House floor would be "cleansing" for the country, and she challenged Republicans who argued that such a commission was unnecessary.

"I ask my friends on the other side of the aisle, do not cancel us tonight. Do not ignore the pain, the history and the reasonableness of this commission," Jackson Lee said on Wednesday.

The bill would create a 13-member commission that would study the effects of slavery and racial discrimination, hold hearings and recommend "appropriate remedies" to Congress. That commission would also consider what form a national apology could take for the harm caused by slavery.

Lawmakers who support the legislation say that today's descendants of slaves continue to suffer from the lingering legacy of slavery and persistent racial inequities.

"Understanding that the compounding nature of racism has created a dynamic where Black people today must not only grapple with living in a country built on our sustained oppression, but also observe the modern manifestations in our daily lives," said New York Democratic Rep. Jamaal Bowman, who cited the racial wealth gap as well as COVID-19 as examples.

Among supporters of reparations for slavery, there is some disagreement about what reparations might ultimately look like. Some have pushed for direct monetary payments to descendants of slaves. Others have said that there are different proposals that may be more realistic and could be put into law.

Some proponents of H.R. 40 acknowledge that it would be challenging to get it passed in the Senate, given the 60-vote threshold to overcome a filibuster and Democrats' narrow majority. The bill faces Republican pushback in both chambers.

Utah Republican Rep. Burgess Owens, who is Black, said Wednesday that while "slavery was and still is an evil," the issue of reparations is divisive and "speaks to the fact that we are a hapless, hopeless race that never did anything but wait for white people to show up and help us, and it's a falsehood."

In 2019, then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., rejected the reparations idea after the House held a hearing on the issue. He argued that it would be "hard to figure out whom to compensate."

"I don't think reparations for something that happened 150 years ago, for whom none of us currently living are responsible, is a good idea," McConnell said then.

Asked about the prospects for passage in the Senate, Democratic Rep. Steve Cohen of Tennessee, the chair of a House Judiciary subcommittee, said Monday that "the Senate is not a good place to be with this legislation, or with any legislation that's progressive and advances interests of African Americans, in particular."

"You've got to have 10 Republicans right now," he added, "and there are not that many of them that are going to quit and not run again, and going to have a come to Jesus moment."

President Biden met with members of the Congressional Black Caucus at the White House on Tuesday, and reparations was one of the topics discussed, according to lawmakers who participated in that meeting.

Texas' Jackson Lee told reporters that "we have heard from not only the president, but the White House and his team, that he is committed to this concept."

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

What does America owe the descendants of enslaved people? It's a question on the table in Congress today where, more seriously than ever before, lawmakers are debating the idea of reparations. A House committee is considering legislation to create a commission to study the issue. And NPR political reporter Juana Summers has been following all of this. She joins us now.

Hey, Juana.

JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: Hello.

CHANG: Hi. So tell us about this bill. What exactly would it do?

SUMMERS: The bill would create a 13-person commission to develop proposals to address the lingering effects of slavery and racial discrimination from before the founding of this country to present day. That commission would also consider what form a national apology could take for the harm caused by slavery. The commission would be empowered to hold hearings, and it would submit to Congress its findings for what may be appropriate remedies for Black Americans. Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas is the lead sponsor of this bill known as H.R. 40.

She says that the descendants of slaves still suffer today from the legacy of that system.

SHEILA JACKSON LEE: We're committed to establishing this H.R. 40 as an enabling legislation to address the deep-seated racism and historic and systemic elements of mistreatment of African Americans through the centuries. We think it will be cleansing for this nation, and we think that it will be a step moving America forward to see us debate this question on the floor of the House.

SUMMERS: Now, I think it's important to note that there is still debate, even among supporters of reparations for slavery, about what that might actually look like. Some have pushed for direct monetary payments to the descendants of slaves. Others have said that there are other types of proposals that may be more realistic and could be put into law.

CHANG: OK. I mean, Juana, this is a bill that some members of Congress have been trying to pass for literally decades now, right?

SUMMERS: Yeah, three decades, actually.

CHANG: Wow.

SUMMERS: This bill was first proposed back in 1989 by then-Congressman John Conyers, a Democrat from Michigan who has since died. But there wasn't a whole lot of interest from congressional leaders, so it never received a vote. But things are really different now. This country has been grappling openly with systemic racism injustice. And now this bill has the support of more than 170 Democrats, as well as key congressional leaders. Supporters of this effort say that the committee vote that we expect to see today that would eventually send this to the full House is a really important milestone in their efforts to meaningfully deal with the lingering effects of slavery on this country that still exist to this day.

CHANG: Yeah. OK, a lot of Democrats on board, but what about Republicans? What have they had to say about this bill?

SUMMERS: We expect to hear them push back on this legislation in this hearing later today, as well as in the Senate, if it does make its way there. Now, there was an earlier hearing on this legislation where we got a sense of where they stand on this. Take a listen to one argument from Congressman Burgess Owens of Utah, a Republican who is Black.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BURGESS OWENS: It is impractical and a nonstarter for the United States government to pay reparations. It is also unfair and heartless to give Black Americans the hope that this is a reality. The reality is that Black American history is not one of a hapless, hopeless race oppressed by a more powerful white race - instead, a history of millions of middle- and wealthy-class Black Americans throughout the early 20th century achieving the American dream.

SUMMERS: So that was Congressman Owens' approach. Now, for another indication of what we might hear from Republicans, look back to 2019, when then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell talked about this. And his argument in part was that it would be hard to figure out who to compensate and that reparations for something that happened more than 150 years ago was just not a good idea.

CHANG: Well, what about President Biden? Like, do we know if he would sign this bill into law if it actually did pass Congress?

SUMMERS: So the president met with members of the Congressional Black Caucus yesterday. And after the meeting, these lawmakers said that they had discussed this issue and this bill with the president. Congresswoman Jackson Lee said that she'd heard from the president as well as members of his team that he is committed to this concept.

CHANG: That is NPR's Juana Summers.

Thank you, Juana.

SUMMERS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.