WASHINGTON -- Senate Republicans revealed this week that they have eliminated the phrase “civil rights and human rights” from the title of a Senate Judiciary subcommittee charged with overseeing those issues.
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) became chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee this month and announced the members of the six subcommittees this week. With Grassley’s announcement, the subcommittee formerly known as the Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights suddenly became the Subcommittee on the Constitution.
The new chairman of the newly named subcommittee is Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas). His office confirmed that it made the switch.
“We changed the name because the Constitution covers our most basic rights, including civil and human rights,” said Cornyn spokeswoman Megan Mitchell. “We will focus on these rights, along with other issues that fall under the broader umbrella of the Constitution.”
In his press release, Cornyn never used the phrase “civil rights” or “human rights.” Instead, the release said he would be a "watchdog against unconstitutional overreach and will hold the Obama Administration accountable for its actions." Cornyn is an opponent of legislation that would restore federal oversight over some local and state election changes that were eliminated when the Supreme Court gutted a key provision of the Voting Rights Act in 2013.
While the subcommittee made no formal announcement of the title change, civil rights organizations noticed. Nancy Zirkin, who serves as executive vice president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, called the decision “discouraging.”
“Names matter. This, after all, is a subcommittee with jurisdiction over the implementation and enforcement of many of our most important civil rights laws,” she said in a statement on Friday. “Changing the name of this subcommittee is a poor start, but the proof of the panel’s seriousness about addressing these issues will become apparent in its actual work. We only hope that this troubling name change doesn’t foretell a heedless retreat on civil and human rights.”
Ben Marter, a spokesman for Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) -- who formerly served as chairman of the committee and now serves as its ranking member -- said that the name of a subcommittee “speaks to its priorities.”
“Senator Durbin will be fighting to ensure that civil rights and human rights aren’t deleted from Congress’s agenda under Republican control,” Marter said.
This wasn’t the only recent name change made by Republicans. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), an immigration hardliner who chairs a Senate subcommittee on immigration policy, dropped “refugees and border security” from his panel and replaced those words with “the national interest.”
Grassley spokeswoman Beth Levine noted that, "It’s up to the subcommittee chairmen to name their committees."