Nearly 180 Democrats support forming $12 million, 13-member slavery reparations commission

The White House said the president supports the legislation to set up a commission to "study and consider a national apology and proposal for reparations for the institution of slavery."

Nearly 180 Democratic lawmakers have signed on to legislation that would form a 13-member commission to study slavery reparations at a cost of $12 million.

The Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act was reintroduced in the new session of Congress and now has 162 Democratic co-sponsors in the House and 17 Democratic co-sponsors in the Senate. The Senate version was introduced by New Jersey Democratic Sen. Cory Booker. The bill was first introduced by former Michigan Democratic Rep. John Conyers in 1989.

The legislation seeks to "address the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery in the United States and the 13 American colonies between 1619 and 1865 and to establish a commission to study and consider a national apology and proposal for reparations for the institution of slavery." The 13 colonies were under the control of Great Britain until the U.S. gained its independence in 1776. 

Under the bill, the 13-member commission would be comprised of "persons who are especially qualified to serve on the commission by virtue of their education, training, activism or experience, particularly in the field of African American studies and reparatory justice." According to the legislation, "seven members of the Commission shall constitute a quorum, but a lesser number may hold hearings." 

The bill would require the commission to "recommend appropriate remedies in consideration" of its findings after studying reparations and the history of slavery. 

"We want to isolate white supremacy," Texas Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, the sponsor of the House bill, wrote Wednesday on Twitter. "White racism, domestic terrorism, we want to look at each other as our fellow bros/sisters, and as have been said to the ages, our fellow Americans, I want H.R. 40 to be in the minds and hearts about fellow Americans, pass it and signed @POTUS." 

The House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties held a hearing on Thursday titled "H.R. 40: Exploring the Path to Reparative Justice in America." During the hearing, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat, connected the reparations committee bill to the Jan. 6 riot that took place at the U.S. Capitol.

"This moment of national reckoning comes at a time when our nation must find constructive ways to confront a rising tide of racial and ethnic division," Nadler said. "On January 6, we saw the ugly confluence of such divisions, as white nationalist groups appeared to be among those playing a central role in the violent assault on the United States Capitol. And, last summer, we saw an outpouring of protests stemming from the killings of unarmed Black people by police."

Nadler said he hopes the commission "can help us better comprehend our own history and bring us closer to racial understanding and advancement."

Utah Republican Rep. Burgess Owens, a member of the subcommittee, said he opposes establishing a reparations committee.

"Reparations are not the way to right our country's wrong," Owens said. "It is impractical and a nonstarter for the United States government to pay reparations. It is also unfair and heartless to give Black Americans the hope that this is a reality.

"The reality is that Black American history is not one of a hapless, hopeless race oppressed by a more powerful white race. It is instead a history of millions of middle and wealthy-class Black Americans throughout the early 20th century achieving the American dream."

The White House has said President Joe Biden supports the legislation that would set up the commission. Vice President Kamala Harris was a co-sponsor of the bill as a senator.

"He certainly would support a study of reparations," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said at the White House press briefing on Wednesday. "He understands we don't need a study to take action right now on systemic racism, so he wants to take actions within his own government in the meantime."