You’ve heard of defund the police. Now, defund the Confederates.
Congressional Democrats are on the march against Confederate symbolism inside the U.S. Capitol and on military bases across the country. They’re targeting annual spending bills which fund the government.
Purse strings are the ultimate authority in Congress. You want to understand how lawmakers feel about a given program or policy? Follow the money. Did Democrats spend $4 on a given item when Republicans would spend $6? Or vice versa? How much money Congress spends dictates policy, whether it be federal appropriations for a warship or upkeep of a Confederate statue.
Twelve annual appropriations bills fund the government each fiscal year. The furor over controversial figures is central to five of those bills: Legislative Branch, Military Construction/VA, Defense, Financial Services and Interior.
“I continue to be greatly sad and at times outraged that we as a nation have not made more progress to address racism and the cruel legacy of the Confederacy,” said House Appropriations Interior Subcommittee Chairwoman Betty McCollum (D-MN). “I’m including in this bill a line which requires the National Park Service remove all Confederate commemorative works.”
McCollum added lawmakers “needed to confront the truth of our history and work to right past wrongs.”
House Democrats originally drafted a $694 billion defense measure to fund the Pentagon, by far the largest of the 12 spending measure. The first run of the legislation featured a $1 million allocation to rename facilities bearing Confederate names, like Fort Bragg.
The Senate hasn’t prepped its spending bills yet. But in an interview with WDRB-TV in Louisville, KY, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said he doesn’t oppose some changes.
“I don’t think we can erase history. But there’s certainly a question of the prominence of recognition of Confederates. For example, I don’t have any problem with changing the bases in the south that I didn’t even realize were named after Confederate generals.”
In contrast to the Pentagon measure, the bill funding Congress - Legislative Branch Appropriations - is by far the smallest of the 12 measures. The House bill clocked in at a scant $4.19 billion for FY ’21. And, the measure ordered the removal of Confederate statues that line the halls of Congress.
“There is no statue of Benedict Arnold,” said Congressional Black Caucus Chairwoman Karen Bass (D-CA) when speaking recently at the Capitol. “But if you could absorb for a minute what it feels like to know that our ancestors built this building. And as we spend every day in the Capitol, to walk past statues of people who didn’t even feel we were human. Who wanted us to be in chains.”
In addition to various Confederate statues, the legislation called for the removal of the statue of Vice President John C. Calhoun, who advocated for slavery. And, a bust in the Capitol of Chief Justice of the United States Roger Taney. Taney authored the 1857 Dred Scott decision which excluded Black people from citizenship.
“We need to make a statement now on something we can control: the removal of statues that many visitors to the Capitol find offensive. This is the people’s House. So let’s make sure all people are welcome,” said House Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Tim Ryan (D-OH).
Ironically, the same bill included a provision paying several hundred thousand dollars to the Stennis Center for Public Service. Congress created the Stennis Center in 1988 “to promote and strengthen the highest ideals of public service in America.” It’s named after the late Sen. John Stennis (D-MS) who retired in 1989 after 41 years in the Senate.
Stennis supported segregation, opposed the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling desegregating schools and signed the “Southern Manifesto” which opposed public integration.
But perhaps that discussion is for another day.
There are even questions as to whether the House should attach a “rider” on statues to an appropriations bill.
One GOP source told colleague Mike Emanuel that statues were a policy issue. Thus, their removal should “be considered by the authorizing committees and the Joint Committee of Congress on the Library, not as part of the appropriations process.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) wrote to the heads of the Library Committee last month, House Rules Committee Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) and Senate Rules Committee Chairman Roy Blunt (R-MO), requesting they remove the Capitol statues in question. But no dice yet.
“I promise you, we will continue to defend America’s great traditions against those who want to tear down statues. Erase history,” said Vice President Pence during an appearance on Fox. “We can learn from history.”
“This isn’t about equality any more. This is a radical rewriting of our history,” said South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem (R) in a separate Fox interview. “It’s alarming to me.”
The House will likely put these spending measures in the floor in various combinations in the next few weeks – “mini-buses,” as they’re called on Capitol Hill. But it’s doubtful those provisions will ever wind up in measures bound for the President’s desk.
It’s doubtful the House and Senate will sync up on these spending plans in the next few months. It’s an election year, fraught with radioactive politics, augmented by a pandemic. The last thing the sides want right now is a government shutdown. That’s why the House and Senate could write an interim spending bill, known as a CR (short for Continuing Resolution) to fund the government past the October 1 deadline. A CR would simply renew all current spending and run deep into the fall or winter – if not into next year when the new Congress is seated and we’ll know if there’s a second term for President Trump or “President Biden” is in office.
That means some of these provisions about Confederates icons are window dressing – at least until next year.
But there is a wild card. Do not underestimate the political energy exemplified by recent protests and what that could mean for the future of the anti-Confederate provisions in these bills. Political pressure has been so intense of late that no one really knows if that could translate into law. This is a period of almost unprecedented political volatility.
Democrats know the anti-Confederate provisions are probably just optics now. Democrats also know GOPers are facing lots of pressure to change names and remove controversial statues.
Still, we’ve seen legislative surprises before. Watch to see if Congress punts into the fall or next year – and if the Democrats flip the Senate and win the White House. That’s when the time of Confederate statues and other controversial imagery may well expire.