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The Democrats Tried—and Failed—to Quickly Pass Police Funding Before Summer Vacation

The bills would have increased police funding, but progressive Democrats wanted more language about police accountability.

Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images
Democratic Representatives Josh Gottheimer and Abigail Spanberger outside the Capitol Building last year

In the days leading up to their weeks-long summer recess, House Democrats have worked to pass as much of their legislation as they can—from marriage equality to contraception access to microchip production. But one of their priorities, a package of public safety bills that would have increased police funding, was punted amid concerns about a lack of provisions on police accountability.

Democrats tied the package of policing bills to an assault weapons ban, in an attempt to quickly get both passed. That attempt landed with a thud on Wednesday, with many Democrats skeptical of supporting increased police funding that came free of strings, as well as larger uncertainty over whether either measure would be able to garner sufficient votes to pass.

One bill, co-sponsored by Representative Abigail Spanberger, would have provided additional grant funding to hire officers, while another, sponsored by Representative Josh Gottheimer, would have provided assistance for police departments with fewer than 200 officers. Both bills had bipartisan support. But progressive Democrats and members of the Congressional Black Caucus raised concerns about providing funding for police without any accountability measures in place, particularly since no police reform legislation has passed since the racial justice protests that swept the nation in the summer of 2020.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi indicated on Wednesday that Democrats would continue working on this legislation so that it could be ready for a vote when the House temporarily reconvenes in August to vote on a critical health care bill. “We are grateful to all our members for promoting our shared values reflected in specific legislation that we can all support,” Pelosi said in a statement. Pelosi also told reporters: “The recognition that we have to come back … has made our plans a little bit different.”

Moderate Democrats had pushed for passing police funding bills this week, seeking to counter the Republican narrative that they support defunding the police. Members typically use the August recess before a midterm election to focus on campaigning—a particular priority for House Democrats this year, who are expected to receive a shellacking from Republicans. Internal polling from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee found that Republican attacks on culture-war issues like defunding the police were “alarmingly potent” among swing voters, Politico reported in February.

The cudgel of law-and-order rhetoric so often used by Republicans may also reflect some real concerns: Recent Gallup polling found that Americans are more worried about crime than they have been since 2016. In a speech on Tuesday, former President Donald Trump described modestly rising crime in apocalyptic terms that, while not accurate, may be effective in motivating base voters. For his part, President Joe Biden last week called on Congress to pass legislation providing funding to hire 100,000 additional new police officers.

In June, Punchbowl News reported that 30 Democrats—including several who face challenging reelection races—wrote a letter to Pelosi urging leadership to take up police funding bills. “Members should have the opportunity to show our constituents that we are addressing crime in our communities,” they wrote. One of the members who signed that letter, Spanberger, criticized her more progressive colleagues in 2020 for their use of “defund the police” rhetoric.

Both bills that were put on hold on Wednesday raised concerns from civil rights organizations, like the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “We urge you not to take up any legislation that perpetuates these harmful realities and doubles down on the broken and discriminatory criminalization-first approach to public safety,” Maya Wiley, the president of the Leadership Conference and a frequent contributor to The New Republic, wrote in a Monday letter to congressional leaders. “We believe there to be sufficient resources for law enforcement, but ask that any legislation providing funding to law enforcement include, at minimum, strong oversight protections that safeguard taxpayer money and ensure it is being spent in ways that advance constitutional and legal rights.”

“Accountability” was the word of the day for Democrats. Representative Joyce Beatty, the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, said on Wednesday that the CBC will “continue to be steering the process.” “The agreement is, we have to get it right,” Beatty said. “I think it has been pushed back because we weren’t clear on what accountabilities are placed in the issues. I don’t know that we disagree on any of the issues, but it’s just making sure that there are parameters and accountabilities put into what we did.”

Progressives had supported some of the bills in the package, including one by Representative Steven Horsford focused on reducing community violence and one by Representative Katie Porter to invest in mental health response teams.

“We’re going to continue to work on the other provisions in other bills to make sure that there’s the accountability that’s necessary as we implement that legislation. So we just need a little bit more time to get all this stuff done,” Horsford told The New Republic.

Representative Pramila Jayapal, the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, highlighted the bills by Horsford, Porter, and another by Representative Val Demings as “common-sense public safety bills that invest in evidence-based strategies to reduce crime and improve community safety, and that unite Democrats” in a statement to The New Republic.

“We believe firmly in accountability for law enforcement, and that discussions to ensure Congress passes such legislation have time to continue,” Jayapal said. “We also believe firmly that the assault weapons ban, which has tremendous support across the Democratic Caucus, is desperately needed to save lives in this time of mass shootings, and has the votes to pass, should be put on the floor immediately—not held hostage to ongoing negotiations on public safety bills.”

Senator Cory Booker, who had been communicating with the Congressional Black Caucus about including accountability measures, told reporters on Tuesday that “the gulf here is not that great.” “Everybody [thinks] we should be giving resources to departments who are really feeling strapped, but to do it in a way that’s frankly responsible, as well as balancing the needs for increasing transparency and accountability,” Booker said. Booker was involved in negotiations for police reform legislation with Republican Senator Tim Scott that fell apart last year, although Booker insisted to The New Republic that the two were still talking about the issue.

Although Democrats insist that the ideological differences on policing are not insurmountable, some expressed frustration that there would be no action on the bills this week. Representative Kurt Schrader, who was recently defeated by a progressive primary challenger, told Punchbowl News that progressives “don’t want to do anything for the police.”

Still, it would have been difficult to pass any of these bills with such a tight turnaround for other legislative priorities. Representative Mark Pocan, a prominent member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, noted that some of the bills had not gone through the committee process before they were set to be brought to the floor for a vote, and attributed the postponing of consideration to timing concerns more than any real disagreements.

“When we get to this point right before the break, everyone’s about to go home, especially in an election year—to throw in a bunch of bills that haven’t fully been vetted through committee processes and various caucuses, it’s just harder to bring those up,” Pocan told The New Republic. “People always want to do one thing last minute, but then the reality kind of hits. So I think a lot of this is just a bit overblown.”