Reparations Bill Wins New Momentum in Congress

Mike Lillis and Scott Wong, The Hill, April 4, 2019

House legislation to form a commission to study whether black Americans should receive reparations for slavery is getting a significant boost from Democrats on the presidential campaign trail.

Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), the head of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), suggested that action on a reparations measure sponsored by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) is all but certain, with Democrats now in control of the lower chamber and the idea gaining prominence on the national stage.

Jackson Lee’s bill would form a commission to study the issue of reparations but does not call for black Americans to receive payments.

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2020 hopefuls including Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) are backing the legislation. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), another presidential candidate, is a co-sponsor.

And on Wednesday, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) endorsed the idea, a pivot from his earlier statement of opposition to reparations payments.

“Absolutely I would sign that into law,” O’Rourke said of Jackson Lee’s bill during an interview with the Rev. Al Sharpton at his National Action Network convention in New York.

The support from presidential candidates highlights how the idea of reparations is spiking in popularity in Democratic circles — particularly as a large field of candidates jockeys for support from African-American voters.

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Jackson Lee, who took up the mantle from Conyers, said she’s been talking with House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) about holding a hearing on her bill. Nadler is also a co-sponsor, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has put her considerable voice behind the effort. An aide said Wednesday that, if acted upon, the bill would move first through Nadler’s committee before reaching the floor.

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Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), a prominent member of the CBC and a co-sponsor of the bill, characterized reparations as a commonsense way for the country to make amends for the historical injustices against African-Americans. {snip}

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Not all Democrats back direct reparations payments.

The issue is divisive, and ahead of an election where Republicans and Democrats will be battling over the Rust Belt states of Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Ohio, it has the potential to split Democrats from white working-class votes.

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Rep. James Clyburn (S.C.), a CBC member and the third-ranking House Democrat, has long fought to eliminate racial disparities on jobs, wages, housing and wealth. But he’s repeatedly argued against reparations, saying it would simply be too difficult to implement.

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Clyburn highlighted just one of the thorny questions a reparations panel would have to resolve, noting that mixed-raced people, following the Civil War, had access to certain schooling that black former slaves did not.

“Are mulattoes descendants of slaves? Yes, they are. But they got a leg up,” he said. “So I don’t know how you can fairly deal with that. That’s the practicality part.”

Clyburn is instead pushing for direct investments in the nation’s poorest regions. Known as the 10-20-30 plan, Clyburn’s model operates under the simple premise that federal development dollars are best spent in the areas of greatest need. Under his formula, federal programs must direct at least 10 percent of their funds to communities where at least 20 percent of the population has lived below the poverty line for at least the last 30 years.

On Wednesday, Clyburn and Booker introduced legislation that would expand that model, which already governs parts of federal spending, to a larger swath of programs.

“While genius is spread equally across ZIP codes, opportunity is not,” Booker said.

Jackson Lee’s bill has the same number adopted by Conyers: H.R. 40. That’s a nod to “40 acres and a mule,” the unfulfilled promise that Union leaders made to newly freed slaves in 1865.

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