Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) told black lawmakers Wednesday that he supports new voting rights protections they've championed, but said he won't bypass a committee chairman to move legislation, according to a Democrat who attended the gathering. "He said it right in front of everybody -- he said he supports the [Jim] Sensenbrenner bill," Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), said after Ryan met with the group on Capitol Hill. "So somebody was saying, 'Well, why don't you go tell your committee chair to do it?' " Cleaver added. "And he said, ... 'Look, I can't do that.' "
In June 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act, clearing the way for a variety of conservative states to impose new restrictions, putting more hurdles between voters and their elections process. The justices, in a 5-4 ruling, effectively told Congress it'd be up to legislators to revise the landmark law.
To that end, President Obama and congressional Democrats are championing a fix called the "Voting Rights Advancement Act," introduced last June. In the House, the bill has picked up 157 co-sponsors, all 157 of whom are members of the Democratic minority. In the Senate, it has 41 co-sponsors, 40 of whom are in the Democratic minority. (Alaska's Lisa Murkowski is the exception.)
In other words, if there's going to be any progress on this issue, supporters of voting rights are going to need some Republican allies. The good news is, the top GOP lawmaker in Washington is sympathetic to the Democrats' push. The bad news, reported yesterday by The Hill, is that this lawmaker doesn't intend to do anything about it.
Except, of course, he can.
Let's back up for a minute because the conversation includes two separate bills. In the last Congress, Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) partnered with Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) on a measure called the "Voting Rights Amendment Act," which was intended to address the Supreme Court's decision. It was a narrow approach, falling far short of voting-rights advocates' goals, but it was better than nothing.
Republican leaders ignored the bipartisan effort and the bill died a quiet death. The "Voting Rights Advancement Act," in the current Congress, is the "Voting Rights Amendment Act's" more ambitious successor, which GOP leaders have also paid no attention to.
What Paul Ryan told the Congressional Black Caucus this week is that he's willing to support the old bill, co-authored by Sensenbrenner, his GOP colleague. The implication is, the Speaker won't go for the new VRA fix, but he's comfortable with the previous one.
And while that may seem like a step in the right direction, what matters in practical terms is that Ryan's support won't translate into action -- the bill is being ignored in committee and the Speaker won't lift a finger to go around House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), who likes the status quo just the way it is.
Ryan apparently disagrees with Goodlatte, but won't act. If voting rights suffer, so be it -- because the Speaker believes he's powerless in the matter.
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Calif.) issued a statement responding to Ryan's claim that he "can't" help Democrats on this issue. "Well, actually, he can," the Maryland Democrat said. "He's the Speaker of the House! But instead of allowing the House to work its will, it appears he intends to sit idly by and allow states across the country to maintain policies that make it harder for Americans to cast a ballot on Election Day."