The House Judiciary Committee’s debate on a broad policing overhaul bill Wednesday meandered predictably along partisan lines for hours as Republicans raised issues like abortion, allegations about the left-wing group Antifa and the FBI investigation of Michael Flynn — until Rep. Cedric Richmond decided to call them out in an unusually personal way.
The next five minutes — raised voices, fingers pointed, and Florida Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz responding, “Who the hell do you think you are?” — in many ways encapsulated how typical Washington forces already threaten to squash any political momentum that started with the death of George Floyd at the knee of a Minneapolis police officer and was bolstered with days of demonstrations nationwide.
And the exchange showed how the issue of racial disparity and use of force in policing has pulled at the seams of the typical layers of decorum on Capitol Hill, and brought discussions of race to the foreground.
“By the time I’m finished, it will be clear that we are not good friends,” Richmond, a Louisiana Democrat and a former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, told Republicans on the committee.
Richmond had a few things on his mind when he started speaking during the markup of an amended bill that advanced along party lines, 24 to 14, late Wednesday night. Democrats, who adopted a manager’s amendment but rejected all Republican efforts to change the bill, plan a floor vote
later this month.
Richmond said he has been “singing this same song since 1991.” He said this was a national crisis. And he characterized the Senate Republicans’ version of a policing bill, introduced that morning, as a watered-down measure “that mandates nothing.”
By that moment, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., had already called the much broader Democratic bill the Judiciary Committee began debating Wednesday a “nonstarter” that “is going nowhere in the Senate.” A White House spokeswoman had told reporters the Trump administration fully backed the Senate Republicans version.
The difference between the Republican and Democratic bills threatens any progress on the issue at all in Washington.
And the first three hours of Wednesday’s markup were spent on two Republican amendments. One was sparked by Republicans’ problems with the FBI’s investigation into Flynn, President Donald Trump’s first national security adviser, and the other singled out Antifa as an instigator of violence, riots and looting that happened along with the protests about police misconduct.
Richmond did more than hint that the Republican approach to the markup was seen differently by a political party that is overwhelmingly white as opposed to the more racially diverse Democratic caucus.
“To my colleagues, especially to the ones that keep introducing amendments that are a tangent and a distraction from what we’re talking about, you all are white males, you never lived in my shoes and you do not know what it’s like to be an African American male,” Richmond said.
He spoke about how some members of Congress voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — landmark bills for black rights — because of side issues.
“If you are opposed to this legislation, let’s just have a vote,” Richmond said. “But please don’t come in here and make a mockery of the pain that exists in my community.”
Richmond said that this is a crisis, people are losing their lives, and he’s not interested in a watered-down bill or “equality with all deliberate speed” — and that he’s not interested in investigating Antifa or even the Klu Klux Klan as part of the policing overhaul.
“I will give you the benefit of the doubt that it is unconscious bias that I’m hearing, because at worst it’s conscious bias and that I would hate to assume of anyone on the other side,” Richmond said.
Gaetz interjected. He asked whether Richmond knew if any Republicans had children who were black, and the two lawmakers spoke over each other as Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., banged the gavel for order.
“Man, stop. I’m not about to get sidetracked by the color of our children,” Richmond told Gaetz. “It is not about the color of your kids. It is about black males, black people in the streets, that are getting killed. And if one of them happens to be your kid, I’m concerned about him too, and clearly, I’m more concerned about him than you are.”
Gaetz replied: “You’re claiming you have more concern for my family than I do. Who the hell do you think you are?”
“If the shoe fits,” Richmond said. “Kicked dog holler.”
Gaetz called it outrageous. Richmond replied, “Was that a nerve?”
“Yeah, you’re damn right it was a nerve,” Gaetz said.
Rep. Ted Lieu, who was born in Taiwan, cited his racial background later when he picked up on Richmond’s comments.
“I want my Republican colleagues to understand why it’s offensive, at this hearing about the killing of black Americans by the government, you’re talking about freaking Michael Flynn? And you talk about Google and Twitter, and you’re talking about protests in Seattle, things that have nothing to do with our government murdering black Americans,'' Lieu said.
“It is offensive when you bring up these random issues; it shows that you don’t get the problem. I want you to have some humility and understand why many of us minorities get offended by your tactics,” Lieu said.
The markup largely settled down after the exchange between Richmond and Gaetz, with Republicans offering more amendments to the Democrats’ 137-page policing overhaul bill, which has provisions that would address a swath of issues and has enough co-sponsors to pass the House.
The House bill would lower the standard for federal prosecution of police misconduct cases, ban police use of chokeholds and no-knock warrants, and eliminate the “qualified immunity” doctrine, a concept that protects police officers and government officials from lawsuits that has been strengthened by Supreme Court rulings.
Among other provisions, it includes requirements to start a government-run national database to track police misconduct and have local and state law enforcement agencies report use-of-force statistics, as well as conduct racial and religious bias training.
Republicans have said there are areas of agreement between the parties on provisions, such as those in the Senate Republican bill led by Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, the sole black Senate Republican.
Ohio Republican Steve Chabot said at the markup that he had three amendments, and he’s “going to be working with Sen. Tim Scott to get these actually into law, if at all possible.”
And some Democrats, including bill author and Congressional Black Caucus Chairwoman Rep. Karen Bass of California, spoke hopefully of progress.
“When I hear that many of our proposals have been incorporated in what I hear is coming out of the Senate in a different way, not as strong, not as powerful, but it makes me feel like there is a pathway for us to do this,” Bass said. “And the American people are waiting for us and the whole world is watching us.”