A Nearly 50-Year Liberal Legacy

Rep. John Conyers has served long enough that he can point with pride to an endorsement from Martin Luther King Jr. But he’s not done yet.

John Conyers
National Journal
Billy House
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Billy House
Dec. 11, 2013, 3:05 p.m.

Rep. John Con­yers, the top Demo­crat on the House Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee and the only Afric­an-Amer­ic­an to ever com­mand the pan­el’s gavel, speaks with ob­vi­ous pride about his nearly 50 years of le­gis­lat­ive achieve­ment.

But the second-most-seni­or mem­ber of the House — only fel­low Michigan Demo­crat John Din­gell has served longer — can’t hide his frus­tra­tion at be­ing back in the minor­ity party.

“It’s easi­er to be chair­man than a former chair­man,” the courtly, 84-year-old Con­yers dead­pans, half-jok­ingly.

Con­yers does not of­fer any­thing spe­cific­ally neg­at­ive about the cur­rent Ju­di­ciary chair­man, Bob Good­latte of Vir­gin­ia. Rather, he says of Re­pub­lic­ans on the com­mit­tee gen­er­ally: “These guys aren’t un­civil or un­fair. It’s that we have a dif­fer­ent per­spect­ive in what we’re try­ing to get ac­com­plished.”

At the same time, there is no sym­pathy from Con­yers for the tur­moil Good­latte, Speak­er John Boehner, and oth­er GOP lead­ers are ex­per­i­en­cing be­cause of pres­sure from con­ser­vat­ives in their party. He says Demo­crats had it worse from the late 1940s through when he ar­rived in Con­gress in 1965, a peri­od when many con­ser­vat­ive Demo­crats splintered the party over civil rights.

“When you con­sider tur­moil — the folks around here now, they haven’t seen any­thing,” he said.

Con­yers has al­ways served on the Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee — the first Afric­an-Amer­ic­an to do so — since com­ing to the House in 1965 as a young law­yer rep­res­ent­ing a De­troit-area dis­trict.

From that com­mit­tee, he has re­mained a fix­ture on the Amer­ic­an polit­ic­al scene, span­ning the era of civil-rights and vot­ing-rights struggles through di­vis­ive pres­id­en­tial im­peach­ment pro­ceed­ings and the Ir­aq War. His as­cen­sion to Ju­di­ciary chair­man oc­curred in 2007 after House Demo­crats were swept in­to the ma­jor­ity, only to see his gavel taken away when Re­pub­lic­ans re­gained con­trol in 2011.

“Giv­en that com­mit­tee’s pivotal role in block­ing ma­jor civil-rights meas­ures for dec­ades across the 20th cen­tury, I sus­pect that his chair­man­ship will be re­cog­nized as a key mo­ment in con­gres­sion­al his­tory,” says Sarah Bind­er, a seni­or fel­low in gov­ernance stud­ies at the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion and pro­fess­or of polit­ic­al sci­ence at George Wash­ing­ton Uni­versity.

While it may be too early to write the fi­nal chapter of Con­yers’s con­gres­sion­al leg­acy, his nearly half-cen­tury on Cap­it­ol Hill has left a long re­cord of le­gis­lat­ive activ­ity. Con­yers has sponsored bills and worked on is­sues in­volving vot­ing-rights ex­ten­sions, do­mest­ic vi­ol­ence, hate-crime pre­ven­tion, fair sen­ten­cing, and in­creased ac­cess to health care.

Con­yers holds the dis­tinc­tion of be­ing the only mem­ber of Con­gress in­volved in the im­peach­ment pro­ceed­ings against two pres­id­ents. Con­yers also was one of the 13 found­ing mem­bers of the Con­gres­sion­al Black Caucus. He proudly notes that he was the only Afric­an-Amer­ic­an can­did­ate ever en­dorsed by Mar­tin Luth­er King Jr., and he em­ployed civil-rights icon Rosa Parks on his con­gres­sion­al staff from 1965 to 1988.

“The le­gis­la­tion that I’m most pleased with — the King hol­i­day bill — didn’t come out of the [Ju­di­ciary] Com­mit­tee,” Con­yers said of his 18-year battle to pass le­gis­la­tion com­mem­or­at­ing King’s life with a fed­er­al hol­i­day, signed by Pres­id­ent Re­agan in 1983.

Con­yers has led a num­ber of not­able con­gres­sion­al in­vest­ig­a­tions, in­clud­ing one end­ing in a 2006 re­port based on hear­ings and doc­u­ments that de­term­ined that Pres­id­ent George W. Bush, Vice Pres­id­ent Dick Cheney, and ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials had misled Con­gress about the de­cision to go to war in Ir­aq. And as Ju­di­ciary chair­man in 2007, Con­yers led an in­vest­ig­a­tion of U.S. at­tor­ney fir­ings un­der Bush. His com­mit­tee and the House held sev­er­al ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials in con­tempt of Con­gress for re­fus­ing to co­oper­ate.

Of course, there also have been set­backs. He ran un­suc­cess­fully for may­or of De­troit twice, in 1989 and 1993. And in 2009, his wife, who was the De­troit City Coun­cil pres­id­ent pro tem, pleaded guilty to tak­ing bribes and re­ceived a pris­on sen­tence.

Today, Con­yers re­mains very much the same soft-spoken law­maker he al­ways has been, al­though he’s still ag­gress­ively lib­er­al. In Na­tion­al Journ­al’s vote rat­ings for 2012, Con­yers was ranked tied with 13 oth­ers as the most left-lean­ing mem­bers in the House. “I have nev­er been at­tacked for be­ing a con­ser­vat­ive pro­ponent of any­thing,” he said.

But his aim has not al­ways been trained on the op­pos­i­tion. For in­stance, he has been crit­ic­al of Pres­id­ent Obama for be­ing too eager to pla­cate con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans. “I think it’s com­monly un­der­stood “¦ that White House lunches and din­ners and out­ings will not get it with them [Re­pub­lic­ans]. It will not ad­vance his cause,” Con­yers said.

Con­yers also has taken the ad­min­is­tra­tion to task for do­mest­ic-sur­veil­lance pro­grams, and this year sponsored, with fel­low Michigan Rep. Justin Amash, a Re­pub­lic­an, a bill that would have barred the Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency from spend­ing money on sur­veil­lance of any cit­izen not already the sub­ject of an in­vest­ig­a­tion.

Demo­crats don’t al­ways agree with him, either. In fact, many on his com­mit­tee broke with the rank­ing mem­ber and joined Re­pub­lic­ans to ad­vance a pat­ent-lit­ig­a­tion bill just last week.

But Rep. Ha­keem Jef­fries, D-N.Y., a fresh­man mem­ber of the com­mit­tee, says he re­gards Con­yers as “a le­gendary mem­ber of the House of Rep­res­ent­at­ives whose pres­ence will al­ways be im­port­ant and rel­ev­ant to whatever is­sues may be on the table be­fore the Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee.” An­oth­er com­mit­tee Demo­crat, Rep. Hank John­son of Geor­gia, says Con­yers is “a man of great con­science and con­vic­tion.”

Nev­er­the­less, Bind­er and oth­ers say it’s simply hard to be in­flu­en­tial as a mem­ber of the minor­ity party in the House, es­pe­cially in a peri­od of great po­lar­iz­a­tion and starkly con­trast­ing policy agen­das.

But fel­low Michigan Demo­crat Sander Lev­in, the rank­ing mem­ber of the House Ways and Means Com­mit­tee, says Con­yers does his best. “He wouldn’t want you to say he’s simply rid­ing along on his past ac­com­plish­ments,” Lev­in said. “He’s act­ive. In­flu­en­tial.”

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