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As some are careful to point out, the push toward a more equal society is a movement, not a moment. But even with that in mind, Congress had a moment this past week to come together, work through differences and at least begin a process to pass meaningful police reform. In an all too familiar scenario, our country’s legislators seem poised to fail in meeting the immediacy of this moment and the movement toward equal justice.
While the U.S. House of Representatives passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act on Thursday, the U.S. Senate failed to move forward with its own reform bill, the JUSTICE Act, on Wednesday after most of the Democratic caucus opposed even beginning debate on the proposal. Despite legitimate concerns about the strength of the Senate bill and the fact that it bypassed the Judiciary Committee before heading to the floor, Senate Democrats should be willing to start debating this pressing issue — regardless of where that debate happens.
After the failed vote, Sen. Susan Collins called it “truly stunning that the Democratic leader blocked even beginning debate on police reform legislation.” Given that Democrats had been indicating this was a possibility for days, the move wasn’t really shocking. But we do share Collins’ frustration and her belief that “now is the time for action.” Despite Wednesday’s setback, we hope there will still be a path forward for this debate.
“Today’s vote was not about passing a final bill. It was a vote to allow Democrats and Republicans alike to begin discussing, debating, and amending a proposal that will bring needed reforms to lessen racial injustices and to reform practices in police departments,” Collins said. “The Senate should not squander this historic opportunity to make a difference for communities of color.”
Sen. Angus King was one of the few members of the Democratic caucus to vote with Republicans to begin debate.
“The bill I voted to start consideration of today does not enact nearly enough change to address the magnitude of the deep-seated problems of racial injustice facing our nation — but it was the only option before us to debate, and hopefully, come to a bipartisan resolution on this vitally important issue.” King said. “While I understand the reservations of those who saw this bill as flawed, I believe a floor debate would build awareness and support for the broader measures that are needed here. On a topic this important, I did not want to miss what might be our best opportunity to get something done.”
If Senate Republicans are committed to having this debate, and seizing on opportunities for action, they should be willing to bring this bill up in the Judiciary Committee. When Republicans retook control of the Senate in 2015, they made a lot of noise about returning to “ regular order.” Once upon a time, that would have meant debating and improving major legislation in committee before it reaches the full Senate. It’s not too late — at least it shouldn’t be — to use that approach.
Over in the House of Representatives, both of Maine’s representatives voted with the rest of the Democratic caucus to pass their police reform bill. Only three House Republicans supported the legislation.
Both Reps. Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden correctly noted that, despite the need for federal leadership, this isn’t squarely an issue for the federal government to tackle.
“Although policing is a local issue, the Justice in Policing Act will ensure the nation has uniform and binding accountability standards for law enforcement,” Pingree said in a statement. “Justice should not depend on your skin color or where you live.”
Golden pointed to several provisions in the bill that “reinforce” steps the Maine Criminal Justice Academy is starting to take in Maine, such as standards for anti-bias and de-escalation techniques.
“Congress cannot fix everything, but we do have a responsibility to ensure that federal laws reflect the core ideals and principles of the nation,” Golden said. “The bill we are voting on today is not perfect, but on balance it includes many good provisions that represent progress. Perhaps most significant among them would be the establishment of a national registry for police misconduct and increased data-gathering. These provisions would help to inform oversight and future policymaking efforts and ensure a sustained commitment to progress.”
The question remains: how do lawmakers come together to get something meaningful done on this issue, and prove they truly want to address it rather than weaponize it for campaign purposes? We hope the perspective of Republican Rep. Fred Upton, who voted for the House bill despite having concerns about some of its specific provisions, will prevail.
“We cannot allow politics to consume this moment. We cannot retreat to our corners, send tweets attacking each other, and let yet another historic opportunity for meaningful change pass without action,” Upton said. “I look forward to this process continuing and urge my colleagues in both parties to come to the table in good faith so we can send a bipartisan bill to the President’s desk.”