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.”