Predictable partisan divides imperil police reform efforts

Is the Senate GOP bill a sincere effort to change the system, or a political move intended to check a box in an election year?
Image: police riot gear march line
Police officers walk in line during a demonstration in Santa Monica, California, on May 31, 2020.Agustin Paullier / AFP - Getty Images

As countless Americans took to the streets in recent weeks in support of social justice, it became clear to policymakers that passivity would not be tolerated. It was time for officials to do some meaningful work on the issue of law-enforcement reforms.

To that end, Donald Trump this week signed an executive order related to new standards for police officers, and the president described his measures as "a big step." He appears to be one of the few people to think so: as NBC News reported yesterday. "Trump's announcement seemed paltry to many experts."

Vanita Gupta, who led the Justice Department's civil rights division during the Obama administration, added that the new White House executive order is "woefully inadequate" and a "piecemeal effort that won't achieve the transformative change needed to heal America."

The real action is unfolding on Capitol Hill, where Senate Republicans yesterday took an unusual step: they unveiled a piece of legislation.

Senate Republicans unveiled their version of police reform legislation Wednesday after weeks of nationwide protests over law enforcement treatment of Black Americans, setting up a battle with Democrats who are advancing a more sweeping version of reforms in the House.

On the surface, there may appear to be some reason for optimism. For the first time since the 2018 midterm elections, House Democrats and Senate Republicans agree on the need for federal legislation on a national hot-button issue. After a year and a half in which Democrats in the lower chamber have advanced all kinds of bills, only to see the priorities ignored in the upper chamber "graveyard," it's refreshing to see members at least superficially pointing in the same direction.

The problem emerges when one looks just below the surface. Roll Call reported overnight:

The policing overhaul debate in Congress has confronted a familiar obstacle that falls along party lines: Democrats want to include the strongest language to force state and local law enforcement departments to make changes, while Republicans want to avoid anything that would be viewed as a federal mandate.

Exactly. MSNBC ran a helpful on-screen image yesterday that helped drive the point home. Democrats want a bill that bans police chokeholds; Republicans want a bill that "disincentives" police chokeholds. Democrats want to end qualified immunity for police officers and curtail no-knock warrants; Republicans want to leave the status quo in place on both fronts.

It's led some to question whether the Senate bill is a sincere effort to change the system, or a political move intended to check a box in an election year.

It's possible, of course, that Dems will see the Senate GOP's modest bill -- which quickly picked up an enthusiastic endorsement from the White House -- as an incremental step in the right direction, which can be built on in the next Congress. It's more likely, however, that Democrats are seeking a more comprehensive reform package, which is not how anyone would fairly describe the Republicans' package.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) told reporters yesterday, "This is not (about) letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. This is about making the ineffective the enemy of the effective."

The Senate bill will need 60 votes to advance, and as things stand, it's not yet clear whether that will happen. Should the chamber's Democrats derail the bill at the outset? Allow it to move forward while pushing for a series of improvements? The party is reportedly still working on a plan.

In the House, meanwhile, a far more ambitious bill was approved yesterday by the House Judiciary Committee -- where it received zero Republican votes. Offered an opportunity to debate the proposal's merits, several GOP members focused less on police abuses and civil rights, and more on ... Michael Flynn.

Watch this space.