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Police Reform Will Likely Fail and Congress Has Only Itself to Blame

Congress should be applauded for trying to act quickly in the wake of the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and others. Considering the House and Senate have rarely moved in step this year, it seemed there was a glimmer of hope in that both chambers were advancing legislation on the same topic at the same time. However, in the case of the current police reform bills under consideration, Congress is making serious unforced errors, potentially dooming solutions to deep-rooted and long-unaddressed issues of racial inequity and injustice.

Speaker Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader McConnell announced their intentions to bring police reform legislation up for a vote in their respective chambers this week. The House announced plans to consider H.R. 7120 introduced by Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA-37) by Friday, June 26th. The Senate was to consider Senator Tim Scott’s (R-SC) S. 3985 as early as June 24th. This may be a speed record for this Congress, but the rush to legislate does not allow for the kind of political dialogue the nation needs to move forward.

Congress is the forum for the country to grapple with the challenges of our time. Yet, in the interest of expediency, the House and Senate have skipped crucial steps that will allow it to fully surface the diversity of experiences and frustrations in society related to policing and race.

This is no way to decide who we want to be as a nation and the direction we want to move in.

And it’s not the way Congress is designed to work.

“Regular order,” Beltway lingo for an ideal legislative process, is so rare that it’s almost an urban legend these days. Generally, it means that, before a bill receives a final vote, it has been through committee consideration, debate, and amendments on the floor. Regular order is a way for our representatives to reason together, to identify the range of problems on a given topic and decide on solutions. Congress does little of that these days.

A lack of regular order is often raised by the minority party as evidence of weakness in the majority party’s plans, but both parties are hypocritical when it comes to the issue. Rather than a partisan grenade, the Bipartisan Policy Center sees regular order as the oil that keeps the engines of our democracy moving.

Committee consideration should be extensive, including background briefings and staff reports, fact-finding hearings, the seeking of administration views, a committee markup to refine the text and build broad support for a favorable report, and final report writing.

Here, the Senate falls short. Senator Scott’s bill has not received a committee markup or report, which suggests that little of the preceding work was done as well. The Senate Judiciary Committee did hold a hearing on “Police Use of Force and Community Relations,” where it heard from 11 witnesses over a five-hour period, but that alone is not a sufficient foundation for national reform legislation.

The House Judiciary Committee has held both a hearing and a markup ahead of its vote on the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. The lone hearing lasted five and a half hours and involved 12 witnesses. Unlike the Senate, the House marked up H.R.7120 in a marathon nine-hour business meeting where each side debated the bill and offered amendments. Still, one long hearing ahead of markup seems too little for the weighty topics of police reform and racial justice.

A regular order floor process should include ample opportunity for the minority and majority to debate provisions of bills and compare them with their and their constituents’ experiences and desires. Floor consideration must also provide for members to offer amendments and have them voted upon.

Here, the House and Senate are more alike. On Tuesday, Senators John Cornyn (R-TX) and Kamala Harris (D-CA) debated the consideration of S.3985. Harris and the Democrats refused to move forward with the bill the next day given the lack of a markup and no clarity from McConnell on whether amendments would be in order. McConnell has maintained an infamously tight grip over amendments in recent years despite promises to do otherwise. BPC believes more amendments would improve the way the Senate functions.

In the House, there will be no opportunity for amendments, per the decision of the House Rules Committee, which is controlled by the majority party. So far in this congressional term, the House has mostly restricted rules, which BPC believes stunts the legislative process. While this may make for a shortcut to the final vote, the scenic route would be more appropriate.

The American people have rightly been disappointed with Congress in recent years. It has failed to address key issues such as immigration, health care, education, and others. Sadly, police reform will likely be added to this list given these early missteps. The legislative engines need more oil or they will stall, which the nation can ill afford.

House and Senate leaders should take their foot off the gas for now and give this moment the patience, time, and consideration it deserves.

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