House panel advances reparations bill that Conyers championed

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Washington — The House Judiciary Committee advanced legislation Wednesday to study reparations for Black Americans that a former Detroit congressman reintroduced in Congress for 30 years.

It was the first time since the late U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr. began offering the bill in 1989 that a committee voted on the legislation, known as H.R. 40. The vote was 25-17.

Several lawmakers during Wednesday's proceeding recognized Conyers, who was a former chairman of the Judiciary panel, for his persistence and commitment to the idea of reparations. 

The successor to his bill would create a commission to study the history of slavery and racial discrimination in the United States since 1619 and develop reparations proposals for African Americans.

The legislation, which languished for decades with limited support even among Democrats, now has 176 co-sponsors in the House, including Michigan Democratic Reps. Brenda Lawrence of Southfield, Dan Kildee of Flint Township, Debbie Dingell of Dearborn, Rashida Tlaib of Detroit and Andy Levin of Bloomfield Township.

And President Joe Biden reiterated to leaders of the Congressional Black Caucus in a Tuesday White House meeting that he supports the idea of studying the issue, lawmakers said.

Lawrence, who is the only Black member of Michigan's delegation, said the markup of H.R. 40 after so many years "signifies growth."

"Unfortunately, change doesn't happen overnight. Especially when you're confronting behavior that people are sometimes ashamed of — when others do not want public recognition of their wrongdoing," Lawrence said in an interview. 

"I’m just so glad that Conyers stuck with it every year reintroducing it, and that Sheila Jackson Lee has stepped up, and she's now carrying the banner forward."

Former Rep. John Conyers of Michigan

Lawrence was referring to U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Texas Democrat who took over sponsorship of Conyers' bill after his resignation in 2017.

Jackson Lee called Wednesday's markup a "major step" toward the creation of a reparations commission, which she described as "long overdue." 

"Here we are today, marking up for the first time in the history of the United States of America, any legislation that deals directly with the years and centuries of slavery of Africans and African American people who are now the descendants of those Africans," Jackson Lee said. 

"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."

Proponents of reparations argue that centuries after slavery ended, disparities persist due to systemic racial discrimination for which the country needs to atone. But critics contend reparations would be too costly and question a causal link between slavery and and segregation, and the racial inequities of today. 

U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan, the top Republican on the committee, dismissed the proposed commission, noting its 15 members would be appointed by Democrats or by the commission director — as long as they come from organizations that support reparations," he said.

“Why the heck do we need to spend $20 million?” Jordan said referring to the commission's budget.

“We know what these 15 members are going to say. Spend $20 million for a commission that's already decided to take money from people who were never involved in the evil of slavery and give it to people who were never subject to the evil of slavery."

Other Republicans have also resisted the proposal, arguing that the fair distribution of reparations and figuring out who to compensate for slavery would be difficult.

Utah Rep. Burgess Owens, a Republican, opposes reparations, saying they would lead to redistribution of wealth or socialism. He argued Wednesday that the Black community is now living the American dream though the middle class it has developed over generations.

"Slavery was and still is an evil," said Owens, who is Black. "Reparation is divisive. It 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."

The bill's prospects in a narrowly divided Senate are uncertain. Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has previously signaled opposition to the proposal, saying in 2019 that he doesn't think "reparations for something that happened 150 years ago for whom none of 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’ve elected an African American president," McConnell said. "I think we’re always a work in progress in this country, but no one currently alive was responsible for that." 

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Washington, in remarks Wednesday directed at her GOP colleagues said, “You seem to really not get this.” Reparations are not about punishment but reparative justice, she said.

“If you through your history benefited from that wrong that was done, then you must be willing to commit yourself to righting that wrong,” she said.

Rep. Tom McClintock, R-California, blasted H.R. 40 as a divisive attempt to set “neighbor against neighbor, American against American, solely on the basis of their race.”

“You say this is healing? It is precisely the opposite. The biased composition of this commission lays its intend bare for all to see,” he said.

“It's designed to reach into the dead past, revive its conflicts, and then reproduce them into our age. I think all Americans of goodwill, regardless of their race, have had enough of this nonsense. So please stop. It's tearing our country apart.”

Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat, stressed that the legislation makes no conclusion of "how to properly atone for and make recompense for the legacy of slavery and its lingering consequences.

"It does not mandate financial payments of any kind, and it does not prejudge the outcome of the commission's work," Nadler said. 

H.R. 40 also calls for the commission to recommend ways to educate the American public about its findings "to advance racial healing, understanding and transformation."

The commission would be asked how the U.S. government will offer an apology for slavery, and how any form of compensation to descendants of slaves should be calculated, according to the draft legislation.

The Judiciary Committee on Wednesday also voted 25-17 to advance the No Ban Act, which aims to block presidents from reinstating a ban on Muslim travel similar to that adopted by former President Donald Trump against individuals from a number of majority-Muslim nations in 2017.

Another bill advanced Wednesday, by a 24-16 vote, would allow U.S. citizens, green card holders and others trying to enter the country with "facially valid" travel documents to contact a lawyer or interested party (such as family members) if detained by border agents for more than an hour.

Democrats on the committee cited a report from the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, highlighting findings that 96% of stops on the Michigan-Canada border were of people of color, and a third of those were U.S. citizens.

"We're creating a right here that doesn't apply anywhere else that I'm aware of," said Rep. Louis Gohmert of Texas, who spoke against the measure.