What the Biden administration might do about reparations

The White House says President Biden supports a study on the issue of reparations, and there has been some momentum behind a bill that would create a commission on it in recent years. Politico politics reporter Maya King joined "Red and Blue" anchor Elaine Quijano to discuss why that might not be enough to get Congress to pass the proposal.

Video Transcript

ELAINE QUIJANO: We're learning more about the Biden administration's plans for reparations, at the White House press briefing Wednesday, Politico reporter Eugene Daniels asked press Secretary Jen Psaki about how the president would tackle the issue.

JEN PSAKI: Well, he's supported a study of reparations, which I believe is what's being discussed and studying the continuing impacts of slavery, which is being discussed in this hearing on HR 40, I believe it is. And he continues to demonstrate his commitment to take comprehensive action to address the systemic racism that persists today. , Obviously having that study is a part of that.

ELAINE QUIJANO: Maya King reports the president supports the idea behind the bill. And Vice President Kamala Harris endorsed it when she was in the Senate. But as Maya reports, that might not be enough to get a proposal to study reparations for slavery to Biden's desk this Congress. And Maya joins me now from Washington. She's a politics reporter for Politico. Hi there, Maya, thanks very much for being with us. So can you give us some background first of all on the bill known as HR 40?

MAYA KING: The bill was introduced in 1989 originally. So it's been introduced in every Congress now for more than three decades. It establishes a commission to actually study the impact of slavery on African-American communities and the role that the United States government played in perpetuating these systems that may have impacted Black communities negatively. Now, the challenge with actually passing it, of course, really lies in a disconnect between what representatives would like to ultimately see this commission achieve.

Some are nervous or skeptical of using perhaps taxpayer to fund direct payments to African-Americans, while others, especially, Sheila Jackson Lee from Texas, who has now sponsored the legislation for three congresses, has maintained that this is really just to establish a commission, to begin the process of understanding exactly the harms done as a result of enslavement and several policies, and how Congress can begin to recommend ways to rectify those harms.

ELAINE QUIJANO: And Maya, why has this gained momentum in the past couple of years?

MAYA KING: In 2019, actually, was when we really saw the most attention paid to this legislation. As you mentioned, Vice President Kamala Harris actually signed on to the Senate version of this piece of legislation as a co-sponsor. And now it's gained more traction this year in part because of the role that the Biden administration has played in saying that they support racial equity legislation. And the fact that over the last year, the racial inequities, particularly the impact of the coronavirus economic downturn, the housing crisis as a result of a lack of funds in communities of color specifically, all of these have really underlined the need for support, and the racial inequities that exist that have distinctly and disproportionately impacted Black communities.

A number of reparations experts and advocates that I spoke to ahead of yesterday's hearing really emphasized the fact that this hearing is being held for the first time in many years within the first 100 days of a presidential administration. And so they point to that as one positive step, or at least something that they can say represents this issue really being taken seriously, not just by Congress but by the White House as well.

ELAINE QUIJANO: And you know that it's not clear how committed the White House is to HR 40 just yet. But before it can get to Mr. Biden's desk, of course, Congress has to pass it. So what are the specific challenges there?

MAYA KING: Well, the biggest challenge to passing this legislation, of course, is making sure that Democrats have the votes. Also, in talking with reparations experts not just on the advocacy side but those on the Hill have pointed out the Democrats' slim majority in Congress is one impediment to passing this legislation. Because not only are Republicans vehemently opposed to this bill, moderate Democrats have really been more in favor of more piecemeal approaches to rectifying the issues and racial inequities that we see. Some have supported housing vouchers instead of reparations committee.

Some have also proposed universal programs that might not necessarily apply specifically to Black communities, but could disproportionately impact them in a positive way. And I should also note, as my colleague Eugene asked during yesterday's press briefing, President Biden is also in a position to use an executive order actually to establish this commission, which would then give Congress the responsibility of moving or leapfrogging a bit forward to actually begin recommending a reparations program or drafting legislation that would go beyond the scope of a commission to actually starting to understand really what these programs would look like in practice.

So there are several steps that have to be taken, obviously, here for this to even make it to the president's desk. But Democrats and advocates, those who are really in favor of passing this bill, say that this year, if not over the next four years, it's kind of their last shot at really making this a reality.

ELAINE QUIJANO: And Maya, just to be clear, what would actually happen if the legislation was somehow able to sort of garner enough support, if those lawmakers were able to garner enough support for the legislation and it did pass?

MAYA KING: So it's clear that Democrats are confident that this has a fighting chance in the House. They can get the votes that they need to pass this in the House. And perhaps if they can really be clear about the language here, move it through the Senate. And if it does pass and make it to President Biden's desk, what this would do is establish a commission of around 13 experts in finance, in economics, in sociology, in history, to study the impacts, the lingering impact of enslavement, Jim Crow laws, and other systemic measures that have really impacted and negatively impacted Black communities. And from there, make recommendations to Congress about what exactly the reparations program could look like.

ELAINE QUIJANO: All right, Maya King of Politico. Maya, thanks very much.

MAYA KING: Thanks for having me.