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Why police reform legislation faces such long odds on Capitol Hill

Is federal legislation on police reform worthwhile? Clearly, yes. Is it likely to pass in this Congress? Almost certainly no.


In 2020, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, there were some bipartisan talks about police reform legislation. The Democratic-led House and Republican-led Senate, not surprisingly, struggled to reach an agreement. A year later, the House passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, but finding a bill that could overcome a Senate GOP filibuster proved impossible.

Now, as NBC News reported, lawmakers are prepared to consider the issue anew.

Senators are seeking to revisit police reform talks after the release of graphic videos of Memphis officers fatally beating Tyre Nichols, although some are skeptical they’ll reach an agreement that can pass in the new divided Congress. ... “I want to rekindle this conversation,” [Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick] Durbin told reporters.

At the outset, it’s important to emphasize two broad points: First, there can be no doubt of the issue’s national significance and the importance of federal reform legislation. Second, the odds of success, even as much of the country was repulsed by the video of officers fatally beating Tyre Nichols, are poor.

In the House, for example, the new Republican majority appears disinterested in even trying to address the issue. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan, for example, appeared on NBC’s “Meet the Press” over the weekend, and the Ohioan made no effort to defend what transpired in Memphis. The far-right congressman added, however, “I don’t know that there’s any law that can stop that evil that we saw.”

And in the Senate, as some members begin preliminary talks, Republican Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, who helped take the lead in his party on negotiating earlier proposals on the issue, thought it’d be a good idea yesterday to blame Democrats for the failure of previous efforts.

That wasn’t a great way to start a new round of negotiations, and just as importantly, his rhetoric wasn’t altogether accurate.

In 2020, a modest bill, crafted by Scott, was derailed by Democrats who made a persuasive case that the measure didn’t go nearly far enough. A year later, following months of talks between Scott, Democratic Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, and then-Democratic Rep. Karen Bass of California, the process collapsed when the Republican said Democrats wanted to “defund the police.”

As we discussed at the time, that wasn’t true.

“Here’s what we know,” Scott argued in Sept. 2021. “We have about $1 billion in grant money that goes to police. When you start saying, ‘In order to receive those dollars, you must do A, B and C. And if you don’t do A, B and C, you literally lose eligibility for the two major pots of money ... when you tell local law enforcement agencies that you are ineligible for money, that’s defunding the police, there’s no way to spin that.”

As regular readers might recall, Scott was describing a policy known as “conditional grants”: The U.S. government makes funds available to state agencies, but there are strings attached. If the agencies meet the conditions, they get the money; if they refuse to accept the conditions, they don’t get the money.

In this case, conditional grants were at the heart of the federal efforts to reform police tactics. Proponents wanted to see a series of systemic changes — banning neck restraints, prohibiting “no knock” warrants in federal drug cases, reforming qualified immunity, etc. — that police departments would adopt because they’d have a financial incentive to do so.

According to Scott, such an approach deserved to be seen as “defunding the police.” The problem was, the same GOP senator actually endorsed the same approach a year earlier. It was when he changed his mind and condemned his own policy that the Senate process unraveled.

That said, it’d be an overstatement to say that the door is closed to possible reforms in the new Congress. Booker has recommitted himself to the reform process, and Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina also has some ideas about qualified immunity that might be included in bipartisan talks.

But the combination of a GOP-led House and a 60-vote threshold in the Senate is not a recipe for success. The fact that Scott, the Senate Republicans’ point person on the issue, is eyeing the 2024 presidential race almost certainly contributes to the problem.

Traditionally, an ambitious senator like Scott would want to strike a major bipartisan deal on a high-profile national issue, which in turn would help fuel a presidential campaign. But as Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida learned on immigration reform, that’s not how Republican politics works anymore: The GOP base isn’t looking for a leader who got something important done through compromise and hard work; the base is looking for a leader who fights against Democrats and derails worthwhile legislation.