Representative John Lewis. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
[See below for update on House hearing]
The Senate Judiciary Committee held its first hearing today on the Voting Rights Act since the Supreme Court gutted the landmark civil rights law last month. The key witnesses were civil rights icon Representative John Lewis and Representative James Sensenbrenner, the former chair of the House Judiciary Committee who led the effort to overwhelmingly reauthorize the VRA in 2006.
In his testimony, Lewis described how he almost died fighting for the right to vote in 1965 and how friends of his never made it out of Mississippi alive. “I remember these problems and this struggle like it was yesterday,” Lewis said. He noted the “deliberate and systematic” attempt to make it harder for voters to participate in the last election, when nineteen states passed twenty-five new voting restrictions, saying “the Voting Rights Act is needed now like never before.”
His colleague Representative Sensenbrenner called the VRA the most important civil rights law of the twentieth century and said, “We cannot afford to lose it now.” The court’s decision presents Congress with a “historic opportunity” to draft a revised Section 4 of the VRA, he said, covering jurisdictions with “recent and egregious voting records.” Sensenbrenner mentioned that he proudly displays the pen Ronald Reagan used to sign the 1982 reauthorization of the VRA. “Though the Voting Rights Act has been enormously successful, we know our work is not complete,” he said. The key will be whether Sensenbrenner can bring fellow House Republicans along with him, like he did in 2006. “I’m certainly on board to put something together that will last for a long time,” he said.
Tomorrow, the House Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on the Constitution will hold its first hearing on the VRA, which will give a good indication of where House Republicans stand on the issue. The subcommittee chairman, Representative Trent Franks of Arizona, was one of only thirty-three House Republicans to vote against the VRA’s reauthorization in 2006.
Beyond Sensenbrenner, there wasn’t much enthusiasm among Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee to revise the VRA. Only two Republicans attended the hearing, Senators Grassley and Cruz, neither of whom stayed the full time. Cruz praised the Supreme Court’s decision, while Grassley and witness Michael Carvin, a prominent Republican lawyer at Jones Day, suggested that Section 2 would be an adequate replacement for Sections 4 & 5. (Section 4 determines how states are covered under Section 5, which requires that states with the worst history of voting discrimination clear their voting changes with the federal government.)