As Congress Tries To Reform Policing, Democrats Face Classic Legislative Dilemmas

How willing are Republicans to back changes to law enforcement practices, and how much difference would new laws make anyway?

WASHINGTON ― With protests continuing that call for changes to policing after an officer killed yet another unarmed Black man, some lawmakers in Congress are struggling to write bills that fit two important criteria: measures that have the possibility to become law and would address actual problems.

Democrats are drafting a number of proposals. There’s an old bill from Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) that would outlaw chokeholds; a proposal from Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) that would create a national registry of police misconduct;  and an idea from Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) to revoke the authority in the annual National Defense Authorization Act that allows the military to give police forces old equipment. 

But all of those proposals likely would face trouble in the Republican-controlled Senate. President Donald Trump, who has made his preference for the police over the protesters widely known, would have to sign the legislation ― an iffy prospect at best. And even if Democrats succeeded in pushing their measures into law, it’s unclear how much good any of them would do. 

Democrats say they are committed to, in the words of House Speaker <a href="https://www.huffpost.com/news/topic/nancy-pelosi"
Democrats say they are committed to, in the words of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), “transformative” change.

Republicans have largely stayed quiet as nationwide protests erupted and have continued following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police and amid the mounting daily evidence of improper police practices. On Tuesday, a stream of GOP senators shrugged at Trump using the U.S. Park Police to clear out protesters ― in part by using a chemical irritant ― the night before so he could stage a photo op. And while many Republican lawmakers joined Democrats in condemning the killing of George Floyd as an officer knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes ― they’ve been much less vocal in expressing support and empathy for the protests. 

Rep. Will Hurd of Texas ― the only Black Republican in the House ― did participate in a march on Tuesday. But Hurd, who is leaving Congress at the end of the year, has been the only GOP member of Congress to do so.

Instead of the systemic policing problems that have fueled the demonstrations, GOP leaders have focused on the isolated looting and rioting that have marred some of the protests.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said on Tuesday that he wanted to distinguish between the peaceful protests and the “violent riots that continue to see innocent people hurt, businesses and neighborhoods destroyed, and law enforcement officers assaulted.”

“The former is a cherished Constitutional right that every single citizen should support,” McConnell continued. “And the latter is an unacceptable scourge that state and local leaders should have ended days ago. 

“It is well past time that we also unite on the side of peace in our streets and peace in our communities,” he added.

It’s possible Republicans join Democrats to endorse one or more of the reform measures targeting police. But even if they do, relatively modest reforms might not change the overarching problems.

The nation’s policing crisis has become clear as the outrage over the Floyd killing has taken hundreds of thousands of Americans into the streets.

Throughout the protests, police have repeatedly demonstrated a sense of impunity. They’ve arrested people peacefully exercising their First Amendment rights of assembly and speech. They’ve shot tear gas, flashbangs, pepper spray, and rubber bullets into crowds. They’ve violently arrested protesters and journalists. And they’ve displayed the racial disparities in who is stopped, arrested and brutalized by police.

While the reforms percolating in Congress could be important ― if the bill banning the use of chokeholds had been made law after it was proposed, following the killing by New York police of Eric Garner in 2014, Floyd may be alive today ― they won’t do much to address systemic policing problems. After all, it should have already been clear to former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin that kneeling on Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes wasn’t acceptable. 

A large part of the problem is that policing has always been more of a local issue, and local governments are generally the ones who approve police budgets and offer oversight, not Congress.

Still, Democrats say they are committed to, in the words of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), “transformative” change.

During a conference call on Monday with House Democrats, one member told HuffPost that Pelosi said lawmakers had seen these types of killings again and again and nothing had happened. “But this has to be pivotal. It has to be transformative,” Pelosi said, according to The Hill.

Democrats have mentioned that the Congressional Black Caucus is working on a package of police reforms ― from outlawing chokeholds to new mandated training for officers, removing legal shields for police and allowing victims of excessive force to sue officers. And the chair of the CBC, Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), seems intent on getting such legislation through the House.

“We are going to do everything we can, while the nation has a height of awareness on the issue, to pass transformative legislation,” Bass said.

But again, any bill that gets through the House would need to get through the Republican Senate and past Trump. And Democrats already seem to understand that their legislation will be a messaging bill instead of an actual reform.

Democrats suffer from classic legislative and political dilemmas: If they actually insist on “transformative” change, then it’s unlikely Republicans will go along. And if they try to address massive problems with minor fixes, they’ll hardly address this crisis and may actually make real reform harder. Giving Republicans a fig leaf of change to support may relieve the political pressure to address the systematic policing issues.

The solution seems to be that House Democrats will go big ― at least as big as the federal government can go in addressing a largely local issue ― and hope that Republicans feel pressure to join them. And if GOP lawmakers just continue to ignore these issues, then Democrats hope the November elections can bring them a new Congress and a new White House to make their more sweeping changes possible.