House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith could diminish militarized policing

Participants in recent protests against police have been imprisoned, maimed, and killed in a tragically ironic affirmation that police brutality is out of control. Although some cities have banned certain uses of force such as chokeholds, a crucial contributor to violence remains unaddressed: the sale or gift of excess military equipment to police departments through the “1033 program.” 

Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA), Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, cannot fix all aspects of militarized policing, but he could end its worst excesses by reforming the program. Under 1033, surplus equipment is sold at discount to police departments for use against Americans, as witnessed this month in Rep. Smith’s district in Seattle

In late June, in response to a month of protests, the House passed the Democrats’ police reform bill, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020. The bill contained a provision to end the transfer of militarized equipment to police departments, introduced by Representative Hank Johnson (D-GA). Although the George Floyd Act falls short of protesters’ demands to defund the police, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has refused to bring it to the Senate floor.

Democrats have therefore turned to the National Defense Authorization Act — NDAA — which authorizes the Pentagon budget for the coming year. The NDAA, which is coming to the floor in both chambers next week, remains one of the few pieces of legislation that Congress continues to pass annually in a bipartisan expression of support for all things military. Johnson submitted his bill for inclusion in the NDAA, as the House already voted for it when it passed the George Floyd Act. 

The bill would prevent police from acquiring military grade weapons, explosives, and vehicles, while allowing the transfer of non-military equipment, such as computers and bullet-proof vests, which are also distributed through the 1033 program. By permitting non-lethal equipment, Johnson hopes to appease rural police departments that rely on the program, while curbing police access to military-grade weapons. 

Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI) has reintroduced an amendment to the Senate’s version of the NDAA that is similar to Johnson’s. His measure is co-sponsored by Kamala Harris (D-CA), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), and Rand Paul (R-KY). None of the three are on the Senate Armed Services Committee, which drafts the bill, and so they have little influence over its content. Senator Inhofe (R-OK), the Chairman of the SASC, will likely introduce his own amendment on the 1033 program, which would perpetuate the status quo. 

If both the Senate and House versions of the NDAA address the 1033 program, the final version of the NDAA is likely to include some measure of reform. Given widespread concerns about police brutality, and specifically the use of weapons and tactics designed for war zones, preventing the worst abuses of the 1033 program has widespread support. 

The power to do so currently lies with Adam Smith. As the Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Smith has significant influence over the final text of the House version of the NDAA. Without Smith’s support, Johnson’s bill is unlikely to be included.

Members of both the House and Senate Armed Services Committees are incentivized to put forward an uncontroversial NDAA, because if it fails to pass, the previous year’s bill remains, and the importance of the annual NDAA is undermined. Smith is driven by political concerns to preserve the status of the NDAA as a “must pass” bill. Therefore, he is unlikely to address the 1033 program because doing so could risk the passage of the NDAA.

By including Johnson’s amendment in the NDAA, Smith would help to demonstrate that Democratic control of the House of Representatives, achieved in 2018, is winning victories for the Left. Yet based on his track record, Smith is more committed to his own influence as the Chairman of a powerful committee than to pursuing the legislative outcomes his constituents support. During last year’s NDAA process, Smith reneged on promises to fight to keep progressive measures in the final bill. He preferenced a noncontroversial bill that Trump would sign, in order to reinforce the prestige of the Armed Services Committees over pushing for progressive policies. 

Advocates arguing against structural racism and police violence must pressure Smith to address the 1033 program in the bill he writes, and to keep it in the final bill. If he opts to take the path of least resistance again, Smith would not only miss an opportunity to use his considerable power to help demilitarize the police, but he would also call into question whether Democrats in Congress can deliver on real issues of concern to the American people.

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