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The white Wisconsin lawyer and the black preacher from Georgia strode into the Senate hearing room together and took their seats, shoulder-to-shoulder, at the witness table. Veteran lawmakers and experts in civil rights law, they had been here before.

Republican Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner and Democratic Rep. John Lewis are men of a certain age and experience amid a Congress marked by a bitter aversion to working together. Though political and temperamental opposites, they have paired up for decades on one of the nation's most painful issues— racial politics — and won overwhelming bipartisan passage when they have sought to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act.

This time it's Sensenbrenner's third rewrite of the 1965 law and Lewis' second. The Supreme Court's decision to gut the product of their partnership has called them together again, but the odds of successfully persuading their colleagues to rewrite the law once again aren't clear.

"This is going to be a little harder," Sensenbrenner said Wednesday after the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing and the day before a House session. "It's uncharted waters."

"If anyone on the other side of the aisle can bring people to the table and get it done, this man can do it," Lewis said of Sensenbrenner in a telephone interview Wednesday night. "He is tireless. And he will not take 'no' for an answer."

Influential House Republicans, such as Speaker John Boehner, aren't saying much of anything about the prospects for a bill to pass the GOP-led House. So with time ticking toward the 2014 elections and the Republicans eager to draw support from blacks and Hispanics, who overwhelmingly vote for Democrats, Sensenbrenner and Lewis are laying the groundwork for their case. They testified Wednesday before the Senate. A House panel opened its own hearing Thursday, with Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte making no commitment to a new bill, but pointing out that the justices let stand other anti-discrimination provisions in the law.

The Supreme Court voted 5-4 last month to effectively halt the enforcement provisions of the Voting Rights Act, enacted to outlaw racial discrimination against voters in local, state and federal elections. Some entire states and counties were subjected to special federal enforcement, with requirements to get approval in advance before they could make even minor changes to voting laws.

Lawmakers extended the provisions in 1970, 1975 and 1982, and in 2006, Congress voted overwhelmingly to keep them for another 25 years. Sensenbrenner and Lewis were central figures in the two most recent reauthorizations. The Wisconsin Republican said Wednesday the research he amassed during the 2006 rewrite, as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, amounted to 15,000 pages.

The Supreme Court decision, striking as outdated the so-called preclearance provision, means that a host of state and local laws in covered jurisdictions now can take effect without Justice Department approval. Prominent among those are voter identification laws in Alabama and Mississippi. The other covered states are Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia. Certain counties in California, Florida, New York, North Carolina and South Dakota, and some local jurisdictions in Michigan, are included.

Enforcement coverage has been triggered by discrimination not only against blacks, but also against American Indians, Asian-Americans, Alaska Natives and Hispanics.

Under the law, jurisdictions can break away from federal oversight if they show a clean record on voting rights for 10 years.

That drew Lewis and Sensenbrenner together again on the same subject, but in a very different political climate.

"The Supreme Court said it's an obligation of Congress to do this. That's a command of a separate but co-equal branch of government," said Sensenbrenner, 70. A new law, he said, should be passed before the congressional elections. He added that House GOP leaders are open to the prospect but they have to see a draft first, it must address the court's objections and it must be "politically acceptable" in the House and Senate.

"The American people expect us to roll up our sleeves and get to work," Lewis, 73, said at the same Senate hearing.

That's a tall order in an age of divided government and scorched-earth partisanship that faded, for now, only a day earlier when the Senate struck a deal to avert a ban on some filibusters. Democrats control the presidency and the Senate, while Republicans have the House majority.

More broadly, the Voting Rights Act hearings come at a tense time for race relations. The nation is grappling with the acquittal this week of George Zimmerman in the shooting of unarmed teen Trayvon Martin. President Barack Obama, the country's first black president, has reacted cautiously to the Florida jury's verdict.

And politically, Republicans are struggling with immigration reform in their bid to appeal to Hispanics and other voters who turned out overwhelmingly for Democrats in last year's elections. So rewriting a part of the Voting Rights Act is sensitive for the GOP in advance of the 2014 congressional elections.

But Sensenbrenner and Lewis are resuming their well-practiced roles.

"I try to be a mechanic, to put together legislation that will work," Sensenbrenner told the Senate panel. "We're going to have to repair a few parts this year."

Lewis, who was beaten during a civil rights march in Alabama during the 1960s and forgave an attacker, says he tries to provide a sense of history and inspiration. At one point during Wednesday's hearing, Lewis looked to his left at Sensenbrenner.

"I am very proud and pleased to be with him today. My friend, my brother," Lewis said.

View online: here.
At the House Judiciary Committee hearing today on “Oversight of the Administration’s use of FISA Authorities,” Congressmen Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) presented the Committee with the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) response to his June 6th letter to Attorney General Eric Holder regarding the Department’s interpretation and implementation of Section 215 of the Patriot Act as it pertains to the collection of phone records.

The Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing today entitled “From Selma to Shelby County: Working Together to Restore the Protections of the Voting Rights Act.” Congressmen Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) and John Lewis (D-GA) were asked to testify. Congressman Sensenbrenner submitted the following statement:

Good afternoon Chairman Leahy, Ranking Member Grassley and distinguished members of the Committee. Thank you for inviting me to provide my perspective on the continued importance of the Voting Rights Act. I am proud to have served as Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee in 2006 when Congress last reauthorized the VRA.

The VRA is one of the most important pieces of civil rights legislation ever passed and is vital to our commitment to never again permit racial prejudices in our electoral process.  It began a healing process that ameliorated decades of discrimination and helped distinguish a democracy that serves as an example for the world.

Free, fair, and accessible elections are sacrosanct, and the right of every legal voter to cast their ballot must be unassailable. The VRA broke from past attempts to end voter discrimination by requiring federal preclearance of changes to voting laws in areas with documented histories of discrimination. There is no acceptable remedy for an unfair election after the fact.  Section 5 of the VRA was the only federal remedy that could stop discriminatory practices before they affected elections.

That’s why preserving the VRA is so important – it ensures that every citizen has an equal opportunity to participate in our democracy.  Remedial actions can never be fully sufficient for elections, because often what is done cannot be undone, and voices silenced can never be heard.  

In 1982, I helped lead negotiations to reauthorize the VRA.  The legislation cleared the House of Representatives 389-24 and was signed into law by President Reagan.

When he signed the reauthorization, President Reagan said:

“There are differences over how to attain the equality we seek for all our people.  And sometimes amidst all the overblown rhetoric, the differences tend to seem bigger than they are. But actions speak louder than words. This legislation proves our unbending commitment to voting rights. It also proves that differences can be settled in a spirit of good will and good faith.  As I've said before, the right to vote is the crown jewel of American liberties, and we will not see its luster diminished.”

One of my most cherished keepsakes is a pen President Reagan used to sign the 1982 extension. I proudly display it in my office; a symbol of the crown jewel of our liberty.  

The 1982 extension was for 25 years. I believed it was the last time we would need to reauthorize the VRA. But in 2006, while I was Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, I became convinced the legislation was still needed.  

As Chairman, I held multiple hearings examining the effectiveness of the VRA, whether the VRA should be extended, and if so, what the extension should encompass.  Congress amassed a legislative record that totaled more than 15,000 pages documenting widespread evidence of intentional discrimination.  

In the dissent in Shelby County v. Holder, Justice Ginsburg quoted me as saying that the VRA was “one of the most extensive considerations of any piece of legislation that the United States Congress has dealt with in the 27½ years I served in Congress.”  Had she called me, I would have updated that to 35½ years.

At the conclusion of its effort, Congress’s bipartisan conclusion was that “evidence of continued discrimination clearly show[ed] the continued need for federal oversight.”

Shelby County vs. Holder severely weakened the election protections that both parties have fought to maintain.  The Court disregarded years of work by Congress.  In a 5-4 decision, the Court eliminated the VRA’s formula for determining which areas are covered by section 5. The result is that the preclearance requirement remains, but it no longer applies anywhere except in the handful of locations currently subject to a court order.

The majority’s decision suffers from one glaring oversight:  it fails to account for the bailout procedures in the VRA reauthorization.  Chief Justice Roberts correctly recognized that the VRA “employed extraordinary measures to address an extraordinary problem.”   But while the majority chastised Congress for failing to update section 4’s coverage formula, it ignored the fact that covered areas can bailout of the VRA’s coverage.  Far from punishing areas for distant history, any covered jurisdiction could bailout of coverage by demonstrating a 10 year period without discrimination.  The coverage formula, considered in conjunction with the Act’s bailout procedures, ensures that the Act is a fluid and current response to discrimination.  The very fact that these jurisdictions have not bailed out is evidence that the VRA’s “extraordinary measures” are still necessary.  

By striking down Section 4, the Court presented Congress with both a challenge and a historic opportunity.  We are again called to restore the critical protections of the act by crafting a new formula that will cover jurisdictions with recent evidence of discrimination.

Any solution must be bipartisan and must comply with the Supreme Court’s objections.  Fixing the VRA will take time, but I am confident that my colleagues on both sides of the aisle can work together to ensure Americans' most sacred right is protected.

I did not expect my career to include a third reauthorization of the VRA, but I believe it is a necessary challenge.  Voter discrimination still exists, and our progress toward equality should not be mistaken for a final victory.


Where I Stand

July 16, 2013

Privacy
The attacks on September 11th demonstrated that the threats of the 21st century require our national security professionals to possess proactive methods of investigation, ensuring that we stay one step ahead of those who wish us harm. As Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee at the time, I was tasked with passing legislation that defends our national security while protecting American civil liberties. With this balancing act in mind, the Patriot Act was drafted and passed with bipartisan support.

As the author of the Act, I am troubled by the ongoing dragnet collection of data by the NSA, as it is a misapplication of Section 215, the so-called “business records provision.” Quite simply, it is an overly broad interpretation of the law. Over the weeks and months ahead, my colleagues and I will work to rein in this abuse and, if necessary, revise Section 215 to prevent further executive overreach before the provision sunsets in 2015.

I value Americans’ right to privacy. I also recognize that there are legitimate threats to our national security. The Patriot Act must be properly applied to reflect these dual concerns.

The Judiciary Committee has scheduled a hearing on oversight of the Administration’s use of FISA Authorities for Wednesday, July 17. I look forward to a public discussion on this issue.

Immigration
As a senior member and former Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, I have been at the forefront of our nation’s immigration debates for the past thirty-five years.

In 1986, Congress passed the Simpson-Mazzoli Act, which granted amnesty to 3 million illegal immigrants. Although this bill promised enhanced border security, there are currently between 10 and 20 million illegal immigrants living within our borders. Clearly, this bipartisan legislation failed, and repeating those same mistakes is an exercise in lunacy.   

During the 109th Congress, I authored the Border Protection, Anti-Terrorism and Illegal Immigration Control Act, seeking to rectify the mistakes of the past, while also updating our immigration law for the new threats of the 21st century, like transnational terrorism and drug trafficking. Apart from its border security provisions, this legislation would have also created an employment eligibility verification system to counteract the magnet that draws illegal immigrants to our country. While the bill passed in the House, it died in the Senate.

Immigration reform is not simply about adhering to the principles of opportunity and liberty. There are very serious national security, law enforcement and economic repercussions of immigration policy. Only after stemming the flow of illegal immigrants into the United States through stricter employee verification and enhanced border security can an honest discussion on citizenship begin.

We must learn from the policy failures of the past and craft reform in a measured, step-by-step fashion. As part of this piece-meal approach, the Judiciary Committee recently approved H.R. 1772, the Legal Workforce Act, which would expand our nation’s E-Verify system, and H.R. 2131, the SKILLS Visa Act, which would allocate green cards to foreign graduates of U.S. universities with advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. In a continued effort to address the problems with our immigration system in a systematic way, the Judiciary Committee will also consider bills on border security and low-skilled visas in the weeks ahead.

Voting Rights Act
The Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ratified in the wake of the Civil War, prohibits the federal and state governments from denying a citizen the right to vote on account of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Despite its passage, the Fifteenth Amendment failed to stem the widespread disenfranchisement of minorities in the United States. Local and state ordinances that erected barriers to voting, like literacy tests, marginalized the African American population. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA)—passed nearly a century after the Fifteenth Amendment—took steps to rectify this systemic disenfranchisement.

Throughout my tenure in Congress, I have fought to protect this landmark piece of legislation. As Judiciary Committee Chairman, I introduced the reauthorization of the VRA, the Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks, and Coretta Scott King Voting Rights Act Reauthorization and Amendments Act of 2006. After approximately 20 hearings, the measure passed with overwhelming bipartisan support. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court recently struck down a key provision of this law.

The VRA is a bulwark against racial prejudices in the electoral process, the most sacred institution in our democracy and the key privilege of citizenship. In the weeks and months ahead, I will work closely with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to update the VRA, so it can serve its function of protecting this most sacred democratic right. Any solution must be completely bipartisan and comply with the objections of the Supreme Court, which will take time and careful consideration.

This week, our work on updating the VRA begins in earnest. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) has called a hearing entitled “From Selma to Shelby County: Working Together to Restore the Protections of the Voting Rights Act.” I have been called to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee alongside Congressman John Lewis (D-GA) on Wednesday, July 17 to offer my analysis and reaction to the Supreme Court decision.

On Thursday, July 18, the House Judiciary Committee has scheduled a hearing to examine potential legislative solutions to protect Americans' most sacred right.

Climate Change
As the former Chairman of the House Science Committee, the former Ranking Member of the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming and the Chair of the congressional delegation to the Kyoto Conference, I am very familiar with the debate on climate change. I have seen ambitious, and often naïve, proposals meet their demise once the American people realize the economic implications.

While I care about the environment—Wisconsin has some of the most beautiful hills, lakes and farmland in the country—I also believe we should not enact environmental policies that come at the expense of jobs and economic growth. For this reason, I reject President Obama’s position on climate-change.

The President claims to promote market-based solutions to climate change. This assertion is misleading. His “Cap and Tax” proposal would have artificially created a market for companies to trade emissions allowances. The American people rejected this proposal because of its detrimental effects on businesses and consumers in an already struggling economy.

Rather than relying on talking points from the Environmental Defense Fund, which result in inflexible, overreaching policy prescriptions, the President should work with businesses and other affected stakeholders to craft workable solutions to climate change.