House Panel Backs Creating Commission on Slavery Reparations

A House panel has for the first time approved legislation that would create a commission to study reparations for the descendants of slaves, but the bill faces long odds of being enacted.

The 25-17 party line vote in the House Judiciary Committee late Wednesday to advance the measure to the full chamber marked the first time the proposal has advanced that far since it was originally introduced three decades ago.

The bill, H.R. 40, would establish a 13-member commission to examine slavery and discrimination in the U.S. from 1619 to the present. The commission would recommend remedies to Congress based on its findings.

The issue of reparations is part of the larger debate on inequality in the U.S. that includes economic disparities, education, and police brutality. Advocates for reparations argue that descendants suffer the lingering effects of slavery and its influence on the country’s institutions. The deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Duante Wright and other Black Americans at the hands of police have put a fresh spotlight on racial injustice.

“We’ve seen a trajectory of the loss of life of African American males and women in the unfortunate circumstances that we’ve seen over the last couple of years and beyond,” said Texas Democratic Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, the chief sponsor of the bill. “What we need to do here is to take each of these tragic incidences and look to a commission that can thoughtfully and thoroughly academically be able to address these facts.”

Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler, a New York Democrat, called the legislation “long overdue.”

“Even long after slavery was abolished, the anti-Black racism that undergirded it reflected and defined part of our nation’s attitudes, shaping its policies and institutions,” he said.

The late Democratic Representative John Conyers of Michigan originally introduced a bill to study reparations in 1989. In 32 years, the measure has never received a vote on the House floor.

President Joe Biden supports studying the idea of reparations but the legislation faces challenges getting through Congress. Almost all House Democrats would need to vote in favor of the bill in order for it to pass if all Republicans vote against it. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer has said in the past that it would get a vote on the House floor if the Judiciary panel approved it, but nothing’s been scheduled so far.

The bill faces an even narrower path in the 50-50 Senate, where 60 votes are needed for most measures to advance. Many Republicans have opposed proposals to pay reparations to descendants of slaves.

Wrong Approach

“Much work remains to be done to improve race relations in this country, including between the government and the people it’s intended to serve,” said Representative Steve Chabot, an Ohio Republican on the Judiciary panel. “Unfortunately, this legislation would only set those efforts back. No-one alive today is responsible for the harms inflicted by slavery in the United States, a practice that ended over 150 years ago.”

Under the legislation, a committee would be established within 90 days of passage of the act and would include 13 members: three appointed by the President; three appointed by the Speaker of the House; one appointed by the President pro tempore of the Senate; and six selected from civil society and reparations organizations that have done work in favor of the cause.

The members would have up to a year to deliver their recommendations to Congress. Remedies may then come in a variety of forms, including payments to descendants of slaves, and through government programs.

Evanston, Illinois, with a population that’s about 16% Black, has began to implement its own reparations program for residents. The Chicago suburb has pledged $10 million over 10 years in the form of housing grants to address its legacy of housing discrimination.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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