As the United States faces its biggest crisis over civil rights in decades, Congress is poised to do nothing. Again.
What could have been a searing, soul-searching moment where America’s political leaders helped establish a new national accord on race and the role of police in society has instead devolved into a frenzy of political posturing, campaign sloganeering and ugly partisan fights.
The House on Thursday passed a sweeping police reform bill that would ban chokeholds, end the use of “no-knock” warrants, create a national registry for officers accused of misconduct, and make it easier to prosecute officers. Yet Democrats picked up only a few GOP votes, guaranteeing the proposal has no chance of moving in the Senate.
And the Senate can’t even agree to begin debate on a police reform bill, with Democrats blocking efforts to take up a proposal drafted by Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.), one of two Black Republicans on Capitol Hill.
“It’s really unfortunate,” Scott said. “You’d like to think that we’re all willing to get together on something as consequential as police reform in a moment like this.”
Rather than restart their efforts to find a solution, party leaders are pointing fingers at the other, suggesting Washington’s latest attempt at reform is all but finished. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other GOP senators were infuriated when Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Republicans are “trying to get away with murder, actually. The murder of George Floyd.” They demanded she apologize. Pelosi refused.
Then Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) angered Democrats when he suggested Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) had “a chokehold” on the Republicans’ version of police reform. Democrats said that comment showed GOP leaders weren’t serious about addressing the issue of police brutality.
Things aren’t much better down Pennsylvania Avenue. The White House didn’t make any effort to broker a compromise; instead, senior aides whipped House Republicans against the Democratic bill, according to GOP sources.
President Donald Trump, trailing badly in the polls, has turned to repeatedly tweeting out “Law and Order!,” a clear sign that he isn’t interested in anything Democrats were proposing. The president instead has threatened to use “overwhelming force” to end protests, urged “long-term prison sentences” for anyone caught tearing down statues, and accused the country’s first Black president of “treason.” Eric Trump, the president’s son, called Black Lives Matter protesters “animals” at a rally last week, to cheers from the crowd.
It’s a level of nastiness between the two sides that’s become common in the Trump era, grinding non-essential legislative work to a halt and sapping any energy to move big bills, be it on immigration and infrastructure, or gun control and policing.
The exception, of course, was the trillions of dollars that Congress approved this spring to respond to the coronavirus pandemic and stave off an economic meltdown — dual crises that forced both sides into rare bipartisan action. Although that, too, only came after weeks of theatrics from both parties. And with the explosive issue of police brutality and racism, what little opportunity there was for compromise quickly faded.
“It’s bad,” said Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.). “The last three and a half years, the president’s tried to divide this country and he’s done a pretty effective job of it, and he’s divided the Democrats and Republicans to almost a toxic environment.”
“There’s not one single conversation between a Democratic member and a Republican member in order to achieve a bipartisan bill in the House,” complained Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.). “At this moment of a presidential election year, a divided America, an economy in chaos, the health crisis, and layer on top of that we can’t physically be with one another to work things out, it makes the outcome this screwed up and awful.”
In the days after Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis, there seemed to be an opening for real action — a groundswell moment that would force Democrats and Republicans to set aside their differences and deliver something to a restive and angry American public.
But in recent weeks, the prospect of a bipartisan compromise has dissipated. Each party has refused to amend their version of the bill, even as they deliver soaring speeches from the House and Senate floor about the need for action and show up to demonstrations talking about getting something done.
“We’re just going to sit here and take shots across the building with a Senate bill and a House bill and no resolution. And then we’re going to fly home tomorrow,” said Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas). “In what universe is that the right thing to do?”
For many senior lawmakers — particularly Black members who led this fight for decades — it’s exactly what they were afraid would happen from the beginning.
“My fear was that we might end up in a stalemate over significant legislation, maybe some of the most important legislation to come to the floor in my 15 years,” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), a former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus.
“What I hope the American public will understand is that follow-through matters as it relates to credibility,” Cleaver added.
Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Mich.), another member of the CBC whose district has erupted in protests in recent weeks added: “It doesn’t matter if you have the best bill in the world if it never gets passed.”
Frustrated rank-and-file members say they cast blame in both parties, with senior Republicans and Democrats working on their own separate tracks from the start. And it has infuriated many of the freshmen who rode a wave in 2018 vowing to end the Washington gridlock.
Many lawmakers left town after the House vote on Thursday disappointed in the failure to act and worried about how the country will react to the breakdown.
“It’s just too important to simply pass and move on to the next item. This is what we’re here for,” Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.), who has frequently lamented that leaders of both parties don’t work toward consensus. “It’s always been my expectation, and frankly, dream, that [bipartisanship] starts in the very beginning But I think we do it in reverse here, too often.”
“It’s kind of symptomatic of what’s wrong with this place in general, and that’s kind of evolved over a long period of time,” added Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.).
Yet Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), the CBC chairwoman who led the effort on the House Democratic bill, still believes that some kind of deal can be reached.
“We’ll be talking, I spoke to Sen. Scott last weekend. I plan to call him today. I don’t see this situation as over at all,” Bass insisted. “I have a long list of my Republican colleagues from Judiciary who expressed opposition to all sorts of things in the hearing. I think that leaves a basis from which to talk.”
Also optimistic was Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the high-profile freshman Democrat who has urged her own party to embrace more ambitious policy solutions to endemic problems of poverty and inequality.
“I think the amount of people in the street and the pressure has created a unique circumstance where I do believe both parties are feeling the heat to pass something,” Ocasio-Cortez said.
“I think that people are working with the failures of institutions,” she added. “They’re working around it in order to push through the changes they’re looking for.”