WASHINGTON – For a moment, Congress had a chance to act on policing reform, mobilized by a national trauma and overwhelming public support. Now those efforts have stalled and seem unlikely to be revived in an election year.
It’s latest example of the ways hyper-partisanship and deepening polarization on Capitol Hill have hamstrung Congress’ ability to meet the moment and keep up with public opinion. As a result, police reform seems likely to join gun control and immigration as issues where Americans overwhelmingly support changes to laws that elected representatives are unable or unwilling to pass.
“In this moment, as it was with gun violence and immigration reform, we don’t know where the president really is," said Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., who weeks ago was expressing skepticism that this time would be any different from prior failures. “If this were the first time we were in this situation, I’d be more hopeful," he said then.
The bipartisan outcry over the deaths of George Floyd and other Black Americans appeared to be a chance for Congress to reshape its reputation. Polls showed nearly all Americans in a favor of some measure of change to the criminal justice system, and both chambers moved quickly to draft legislation.
There were common elements in the House Democratic proposal and the Senate Republican bill, including a national database of use-of-force incidents by law enforcement and restrictions on police chokeholds. But efforts to bridge the divides that did exist in the bills quickly got bogged down in a debate over process, stirred an outcry among liberal activists and exposed again how little trust there is between the top Senate leaders Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.
McConnell said Democrats refused to take him at his word that he was willing to negotiate over the final bill; Schumer and other Democrats said there was little in McConnell’s tenure as majority leader that suggests that’s true.
The swift rise and fall of prospects for police reform also underscored one of the harsh realities of modern American politics. Lawmakers are often driven more by the views of their parties’ hardliners than overall public opinion.
“The incentive structure is misaligned for compromise. That’s the reality of it. Members are more likely to be rewarded electorally for representing their base primary voters than for reaching out to voters in the middle,” said Michael Steel, who was a top aide to former House Speaker John Boehner. “The giants of yesteryear are remembered as such because voters rewarded them for successfully legislating. And that just seems to be less and less the case.”
Public support for some measure of police reform following the death of Floyd, who died when a white police officer pressed a knee on his neck for several minutes, is overwhelming. A new Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll shows 29% of Americans say the criminal justice system needs a complete overhaul, 40% say it needs major changes and 25% say it needs minor changes.
There are other high-profile examples where public support has been unable to overcome hyper-partisanship in Congress — most notably on gun control. An AP-NORC survey from March 2019 found 83% of Americans in favor of a federal law requiring background checks on all potential gun buyers. Trump has also supported the idea.
But gun control legislation has gone nowhere in Washington, not even after the horrific shooting deaths of 20 first-graders and six educators in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012. The obstinacy on gun control has largely been among Republicans, though a handful of Democratic senators joined them in blocking legislation after the Newtown shooting.
The parties have also failed to make progress in overhauling the nation’s fractured immigration laws, despite broad public support. The most overwhelmingly popular immigration measure — granting legal protections to young people brought to the U.S. illegally as children — has gotten caught in the fray, with GOP leaders unwilling to pass it on its own so it can be used as leverage in broader talks.
The congressional gridlock has only been exacerbated by Trump’s reputation on Capitol Hill as an unreliable negotiating partner on major issues. On police reform, he spoke generally about supporting legislation but exerted little political capital when the process hit a roadblock.
“To do really hard things you always need a president leaning in and engaged,” said Brendan Buck, a top aide to former Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., during Trump’s first two years in office. “And on the really hard things he has not shown a willingness to get engaged.”
The police reform debate also suffered from the realities of the political calendar. With the Congressional Black Caucus, progressive activists and the civil rights community all calling the Republican bill too weak to be salvaged, some Democrats saw little incentive to give ground now when they might be able to get more if their party has sweeping successes in the November elections, now just over four months away.
“Why cut a bad deal now when you could potentially be in the driver’s seat to write a real bill that effects real change in just a few months?” said Matt House, a former Schumer leadership aide.
Some veteran lawmakers in both parties have found ways to navigate the fierce partisanship on Capitol Hill and make progress on major issues. Health and Labor Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and top panel Democrat Patty Murray of Washington have shepherded both a major education policy rewrite and legislation to combat opioids through a McConnell-led Senate. They did so by building sweeping consensus among lawmakers in both parties before committee or floor action.
Murray said in an interview that there was little attempt to do that kind of behind-the-scenes work on policing reform.
“This didn't even smell like an attempt to get something done," Murray said. “The feeling that you want to accomplish something, that you want to get something done ... is a very different feeling than we saw with policing reform."