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Black Caucus lays out legislative priorities for combating systemic racism

Legislation to form commission on reparations, address disparities in health care and education among items on CBC agenda

Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., says the Congressional Black Caucus's efforts to combat systemic racism go beyond the policing overhaul the House passed in June.
Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., says the Congressional Black Caucus's efforts to combat systemic racism go beyond the policing overhaul the House passed in June. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The Congressional Black Caucus is eyeing action on a slate of issues that contribute to systemic racism in America like disparities in health care, employment and business, education, criminal justice and voting rights.

CBC leaders at a press conference Wednesday unveiled legislative priorities that include bills they think will help address obstacles the Black community faces in its long-waged battle for equality.

The 55-member caucus has been pushing many of the proposals for years. But they think the national reckoning that has occurred in the last several weeks since George Floyd’s death will spur support for the measures, just like it did for their policing overhaul that the House passed last week.

[‘Slap in the face’: Why Democrats won’t use GOP policing bill as starting point]

“The difference is this time CBC members will be supported by a national movement that is beginning to penetrate into the consciousness of Americans that systemic racism first of all exists and how the manifestation of systemic racism impacts not just the lives of black people but the entire nation,” CBC Chairwoman Karen Bass said.

The California Democrat had several of her CBC colleagues speak to specific issues and bills the caucus supports to address them, but she yielded first to Rep. Shelia Jackson Lee to talk about a bill that seeks to address the root of the several issues — slavery.

“The key question here is that as the slaves were freed, there was no tangible wealth given for their work of over 200 years,” she said, noting that the lack of wealth resulted in decades of “anger and anguish” leading up to the modern civil rights movement.

The Texas Democrat has a bill to create a national commission to study reparations, which she called “the answer to the original sin” that has led to “enormous disparities” in wealth, health care, education, housing and the justice system.

The Judiciary Committee, of which Jackson Lee is a senior member, has committed to mark up the bill this session and the leadership has promised to bring it to the floor for a vote, she said.

Bills ‘under consideration’

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer said in a separate press call with reporters that all of the measures the CBC talked about are being looked at by the committees of jurisdiction and are “under consideration.”

But the Maryland Democrat offered no commitments on floor action other than to note a bill he has sponsored to remove the bust of former Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney, who authored the Dred Scott decision, from the entrance of the Old Supreme Court Chamber in the Capitol will get a floor vote later this month.

Separately, Hoyer told CQ Roll Call last week that there would be a floor vote in late July on Rep. Frederica Wilson’s bill to create the Commission on the Social Status of Black Men and Boys.

[House eyes commission to study societal issues impacting blacks]

Wilson’s bill was not mentioned at the CBC press conference but Bass did tout legislation from California Rep. Barbara Lee, who was unable to attend, to create the first U.S. Commission on Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation.

“Her commission will examine each institution of the country and how that institution impacts Black people and other people of color,” Bass said.

Lee and Mississippi Rep. Bennie Thompson also have a bill to remove Confederate statues from the Capitol that Hoyer has said will get a floor vote.

Connecticut Rep. Jahana Hayes, a former teacher, spoke at the press conference about educational disparities that have long been ignored. She cited legislation to provide funding for improvements to public school facilities, help low-income families access child care and improve college affordability by overhauling federal loan programs and expanding debt forgiveness as priorities.

“It should not have taken a concurrent civil rights, public health and unemployment crisis to draw our attention to this issue,” Hayes said. “This historic moment gives us the opportunity to move boldly and fearlessly towards our goal of equity.”

New disparities from COVID-19

The CBC has long sought to address racial disparities in health care, the urgency of which has increased with COVID-19 disproportionately impacting Black and other minority communities.

Illinois Rep. Robin Kelly touted her bill to create a $1.5 billion grant program for local organizations to conduct or expand efforts to eliminate health disparities during the pandemic.

Congress has already passed legislation requiring the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to report data on the racial impact of the coronavirus but the CBC doesn’t feel the agency has done enough to meeting the requirement.

“The CDC’s first report was a pitiful four pages,” Kelly said, noting the CBC has had several meetings with agency officials “and we expect the next report to be much better.”

Kelly said the roughly $3 trillion coronavirus relief measure the House passed in May included stronger racial data reporting requirements and funded resources like mobile testing designed to help minority communities disproportionately impacted by the virus.

That coronavirus relief bill, which Democrats call the HEROES Act, also included other CBC priorities like expansions of the earned income and child tax credits.

Some of the other legislative efforts the CBC touted have also already passed the House but are stalled in the Senate. Those include measures to reauthorize voting rights laws, increase the federal minimum wage and protect workers’ rights to organize.

“Blacks who belong to unions are much more likely to earn equal pay for equal work,” Education and Labor Chairman Bobby Scott of Virginia said.

There were actually few priorities the CBC mentioned that had not already passed the House in some form. One notable exception is criminal justice legislation following up on the First Step Act that Congress passed and President Donald Trump signed into law at the end of 2018.

“There is a need for second and third step that has to be substantive and consequential [for] African American communities,” Louisiana Rep. Cedric Richmond, who served as CBC chairman during passage of the first effort, said. “We could start by ending mandatory minimum sentences.”

Another step, he said, would be “removing the collateral consequences of incarceration” so that people who have been incarcerated can access government aid for college tuition, housing and get licensees for trades they learned while in prison.

The House has limited floor time left this session, and Bass said the CBC does not expect all of the legislative priorities its members laid out Wednesday to be considered before the end of the year.

“The Congressional Black Caucus has been working on these issues for years, so it’s not just about what we can get done in this session,” she said. “It’s the ongoing struggle that we face that we will continue.”

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