By Mike Lillis and Scott Wong, The Hill
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.
“I don’t think there needs to be pressure, we’re in charge,” Bass said. “It’s being discussed, I’m sure we’re going to get there.”
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.
Former Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) had introduced a reparations bill in every Congress since 1989, but the legislation was given little notice even with the nation’s first black president, Barack Obama, in office.
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.
“We tried to posture this legislation at the highest level of thought and seriousness. There is no humor. There is no request in the bill for a check or a pot of gold,” Jackson Lee told The Hill as she headed to a CBC meeting in the Capitol.
“I do think it has traction. People are not hesitating to openly support it and push for it. I think we have a very good chance of having a hearing some point.”
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. The prominence of the issue among 2020 contenders has lent momentum to the effort, he said, “but it’s also a recognition that Africans who were brought here in bondage — that should not have occurred.”
“This country owes a lot [to the descendants of those Africans]. … As to what the remedy is, we need to look at it,” Thompson said, comparing the issue to the Japanese internments of World War II. Congress, decades later, passed legislation offering a formal apology — and $20,000 — to each of the surviving victims of that campaign.
“Obviously, slavery was a greater internment, and so it’s something that has to be looked at, absolutely,” Thompson said.
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.
In the presidential race, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has said he does not believe direct payments are the best way to address the needs of “distressed communities.”
“I think what we have got to do is pay attention to distressed communities — Black communities, Latino communities and white communities — and as president, I pledge to do that,” Sanders said in interview with “The View.”
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 in the form of cash payments, saying it would simply be too difficult to implement.
“You’ve got to satisfy two problems, one of which is the legality of it and the other is the practicality of it,” Clyburn said in an interview last month.
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.
She pushed back on the suggestion that disagreements in the Democratic caucus were delaying her legislation.
“There’s no hold up. You don’t move legislation overnight. I would never say there is a hold up,” Jackson Lee said. “The Judiciary Committee has been working on this. And we are very excited of the Speaker taking note of H.R. 40.”
The proposal would establish a committee charged with studying the institution of slavery in the U.S. — from its inception until the end of the Civil War in 1865 — and recommend ways to compensate living descendants.
CBC members pointed out that the idea of reparations is being discussed on the 2020 campaign trail because grass-roots activists are pressing candidates and congressional leaders to take up the issue.
“It’s coming from the streets,” one CBC member said.
In one example, Clyburn was pressed last month by an activist representing the group American Descendants of Slavery.
“Tell Nancy Pelosi to cut the check,” the activist said, in a video posted to Twitter.
Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.), the immediate past chairman of the CBC, is a supporter of reparations and the idea of establishing a commission.
“I think it’s a good idea, especially if it’s in the form of education or tuition or something like that. But sometimes you let the experts tell you what they think it should be,” he said. “I think the commission is good because we need to see what the experts say would be the correct remedy.”
This article originally appeared in The Hill.