Justice Department spending bill in limbo over police funds

House Democrats aren’t sure they have votes to pass fiscal 2022 spending bill, given concerns from moderate and progressive wings of the party

Rep. Matt Cartwright, chairman of the House Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations Subcommittee, says the spending measure doesn't defund the police because it involves grants, not mandatory funding that agencies normally annually receive. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Rep. Matt Cartwright, chairman of the House Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations Subcommittee, says the spending measure doesn't defund the police because it involves grants, not mandatory funding that agencies normally annually receive. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted July 29, 2021 at 1:05pm

Concerns about new restrictions on federal grants for police departments could derail House consideration of the Commerce-Justice-Science measure that was originally scheduled for approval this week. 

The House had been on track to vote on the $82.6 billion spending bill Wednesday, but leaders opted to hold over final votes following concerns from Democrats in swing districts about policy provisions that would place new requirements on grant funding for local and state law enforcement agencies, including that they meet certain use of force training standards.

House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn, D-S.C., said Thursday morning following a closed-door whip meeting that he didn’t know if the bill would pass before the chamber leaves at the end of the week for its August break.

“My only concern when it comes to bills is not getting to 218 [votes]. And I’m concerned we’re not at 218 yet, but we’re still working on it,” Clyburn said.

Clyburn said he was confident Democrats could resolve the issues and pass the bill along party lines, but added that likely wouldn’t happen through additional amendments. 

Texas Democrat Henry Cuellar said some moderate Democrats from at-risk districts, particularly members of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's Frontline program, are concerned about police funding language, especially after some police unions released statements opposing the bill. 

“It just depends on what happens in the next few hours on that,” Cuellar said.

Swing-district Democrats were not the only ones who had concerns about the bill. Some progressives said certain provisions in the measure still give the Justice Department and state and local police departments too much control over issues that could be better addressed by social service and community organizations, or through investments in minority business development.

“You want to reduce crime and get kids off the street and provide them support, they need education and they need opportunities for entrepreneurship and jobs. Invest there,” Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., said Tuesday. 

Bowman said he’s also concerned the bill funds grants for mentorship and youth development programs through police departments instead of community-based organizations and with the general imbalance of funding for police versus other Justice Department initiatives that could better aid minority populations.

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, an independent agency funded in the bill, would receive $13 million, Bowman pointed out, of which $1 million is intended for the Commission on the Social Status of Black Men and Boys.

“I did the math, that's like 0.006 percent of what we're giving to police," Bowman said. Grants for state and local law enforcement assistance total more than $3 billion in the underlying bill, according to a committee report.

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., said leadership was still working to hold a vote this week, saying it’s an “important bill” that he hopes to pass. Hoyer said he held over the planned Wednesday vote because didn’t want members to get out too late into the evening. 

Union concerns 

The National Association of Police Organizations sent a letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy on July 13 expressing opposition to “controversial provisions” that the union said would hamper state and local law enforcement agencies from accessing grants funded under the bill.

“We have serious concerns with provisions within the CJS Appropriations bill that attempt to pursue the goals of the partisan George Floyd Justice in Policing Act and attach strings to these programs,” NAPO executive director William J. Johnson wrote. 

Specifically, police unions said the "most concerning" provisions are requirements that law enforcement agencies finish or at least begin an accreditation process, and be certified by the attorney general as having met standards laid out in the bill. 

“These provisions have the potential to jeopardize public safety by withholding much needed grant funds from states and localities as there is no reasonable way for many of these requirements to be completed by the next fiscal year," Johnson wrote.

Using language that Republicans have used to attack Democrats over policing issues, Johnson said the new grant requirements “effectively would ‘defund’ many law enforcement agencies and negatively impact public safety at a time when violent crime rates are skyrocketing in cities and communities across the country.”

The House passed the larger policing overhaul bill in March on a 220-212 mostly party-line vote. Reps. Jared Golden of Maine and Ron Kind of Wisconsin were the only Democrats to vote against that measure.

Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., the lead sponsor of that bill, has been negotiating with Sens. Tim Scott, R-S.C., and Cory Booker, D-N.J., on a compromise measure that can get enough Republican support to pass the Senate. Those negotiations have run into a variety of obstacles in recent months, including opposition from police unions. 

Scott said Wednesday that with the August recess looming “the two-minute warning has sounded,” and that he thought negotiators were at the 10-yard line, but it's more like first down.

Johnson argued in his letter on the appropriations bill that including provisions from the larger police overhaul in the appropriations measure “could work to undermine the bipartisan discussions on reform.” 

Among other conditions added to the spending bill, agencies that want a share of $516.6 million in two Justice Department grant programs must get rid of excessive force and chokeholds, stop the use of “no-knock” warrants in drug cases, and end contractual arrangements that prevent investigations of law enforcement misconduct.

The new conditions aim to require changes in certain police practices that have stalled in Congress amid a partisan clash over racial justice and the use of force by law enforcement.

House Appropriations Committee Democrats at a markup this month rejected an amendment from Florida Republican Rep. John Rutherford to strip those provisions from the bill.

Rutherford, a former sheriff, said some agencies would be unable to comply with those rules for more than a year — and that it wasn't the way to change police behavior because it effectively defunds the agencies.

Pennsylvania Democratic Rep. Matt Cartwright, chairman of the Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations Subcommittee, said at the time that there is a need to change policing practices by ensuring federal funds don’t support places that engage in discriminatory and harmful behavior.

Cartwright, a Frontline program member who won in a district former President Donald Trump carried twice, said the measure doesn't defund the police because it involves grants, not mandatory funding that agencies normally annually receive. 

Republicans have sought to tie Cartwright to anti-police initiatives. Cartwright's campaign has fought back, including a fundraising pitch Wednesday citing potential pro-Trump GOP challenger Teddy Daniels' social media comments criticizing Capitol Police. 

"I find it terribly ironic that the Republican Party constantly tries to attack me with fake lies about my record on law enforcement but now my GOP opponent openly disparages our brave men and women in uniform," Cartwright's fundraising pitch said.

Appropriations state of play

Meanwhile the House was set to finish work Thursday on a seven-bill package that would set aside about $620 billion for a wide range of agency budgets next year, from the Agriculture to Veterans Affairs departments.

The measure was set aside temporarily on Wednesday so the chamber could polish off the Commerce-Justice-Science bill, which ultimately didn't happen, as well as the State-Foreign Operations and Legislative Branch bills, which passed late Wednesday. 

There was some renewed concern bubbling on the larger package about the fact that the Hyde amendment, which since 1976 has barred federal funding for abortions in most cases, was removed from the $253.8 billion Labor-HHS-Education bill. Republicans have gone on the campaign offensive over that issue as well, including in Cartwright's and other Frontline districts.

Democrats were hopeful Thursday morning that measure was still on track, however. Cuellar, who opposed removing the Hyde language, said he felt comfortable supporting the measure because he was confident the abortion restrictions would eventually be put back in the final House-Senate version.

“Somewhere down the line, it’s going to be" restored, Cuellar said.

Any final spending bill has to clear the 50-50 Senate, which would require 10 GOP votes, and Republicans have cautioned for weeks that no bill without Hyde in it will get through.

David Lerman, Niels Lesniewski and Paul M. Krawzak contributed to this report.