House panel votes to advance bill on slavery reparations

Rep. Joyce Beatty, D-Ohio, center, listens as Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Tex., right, chair of the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security, attends a markup in the House Judiciary Committee of a bill to create a commission to study and address social disparities in the African American community today. Rep. Jackson-Lee is the sponsor of that legislation. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Rep. Joyce Beatty, D-Ohio, center, listens as Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Tex., right, chair of the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security, attends a markup in the House Judiciary Committee of a bill to create a commission to study and address social disparities in the African American community today. Rep. Jackson-Lee is the sponsor of that legislation. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite) (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

WASHINGTON – A House panel advanced a decades-long effort to pay reparations to the descendants of slaves by approving legislation Wednesday that would create a commission to study the issue.

It's the first time the House Judiciary Committee has acted on the legislation. Still, prospects for final passage remain poor in such a closely divided Congress. The vote to advance the measure to the full House passed 25-17 after a lengthy and often passionate debate that stretched late into the night.

The legislation would establish a commission to examine slavery and discrimination in the United States from 1619 to the present. The commission would then recommend ways to educate Americans about its findings and appropriate remedies, including how the government would offer a formal apology and what form of compensation should be awarded.

The bill, commonly referred to as H.R. 40, was first introduced by Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., in 1989. The 40 refers to the failed government effort to provide 40 acres (16 hectares) of land to newly freed slaves as the Civil War drew to a close.

“This legislation is long overdue,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler, the Democratic chairman of the committee. “H.R. 40 is intended to begin a national conversation about how to confront the brutal mistreatment of African Americans during chattel slavery, Jim Crow segregation and the enduring structural racism that remains endemic to our society today.”

The momentum supporters have been able to generate for the bill this Congress follows the biggest reckoning on racism in a generation in the wake of George Floyd’s death while in police custody.

Still, the House bill has no Republicans among its 176 co-sponsors and would need 60 votes in the evenly divided Senate, 50-50, to overcome a filibuster. Republicans on the Judiciary Committee were unanimous in voting against the measure.

Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, the ranking Republican on the committee, said the commission’s makeup would lead to a foregone conclusion in support of reparations.