(This post has been updated.)
The new GOP chairman of a Senate Judiciary subcommittee changed the name of the panel, dropping “civil rights” and “human rights” from its title.
The subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights is now simply the subcommittee on the Constitution. The subcommittee names are chosen by its chair, so Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) is responsible for the switch.
“We changed the name because the Constitution covers our most basic rights including civil and human rights. We will focus on these rights along with other issues that fall under the broader umbrella of the Constitution,” Cornyn’s spokeswoman Megan Mitchell said.
But civil rights leaders are displeased. Nancy Zirkin, executive vice president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, called it “a discouraging sign” in a news release Friday.
“Changing the name of this subcommittee is a poor start, but the proof of the panel’s seriousness about addressing these issues will become apparent in its actual work,” she said. “We only hope that this troubling name change doesn’t foretell a heedless retreat on civil and human rights.”
Cornyn, in announcing his chairmanship this week, described his role as defender of the Constitution — “the foundation of the freedoms and values we hold dear” — but didn’t specifically mention human or civil rights.
The committee name-change comes as Republicans take control of the Senate during a pivotal moment in which much of the country remains locked in emotional conversations about race, policing, and civil rights following the high-profile police killings of several unarmed black men last year.
Singling out human rights as its own subcommittee focus only happened in 2007 when new Judiciary Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) created the “Human Rights and the Law Subcommittee.” In 2011, that panel, chaired by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) was merged with the Constitution subcommittee.
Durbin’s spokesman, Ben Marter, when asked about the name change, said, “The name of a subcommittee speaks to its priorities, but Senator Durbin will make sure that civil rights and human rights aren’t dropped from Congress’ agenda.”
Mitchell asked us why, when the Democrats were in control, they didn’t include specific constitutional rights like freedom of speech, religion, press, etc. in the name of the subcommittee.
Perhaps it was because those rights were part of the original Bill of Rights, while other civil and human rights were added as amendments later?
Thomas E. Mann, a top congressional expert at Brookings Institution, said it’s “not unusual for a new majority to rename some committees and subcommittees in the House and Senate.”
For instance, in 2007, when Democrats took control of the House they changed the name of the Education and Workforce Committee to Education and Labor. In 2011, when the Republicans won the majority they changed it back. Much like that, the Judiciary panel name-change is simply a return it’s traditional one, he said.
“Not surprising, just another move in the symbolic wars that preoccupy Congress these days,” Mann said.
Jim Manley, a former long-time Democratic Senate aide, remembers in 1999 when the Republicans had the majority in the Senate they changed the name of the Labor and Human Resources panel to Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP).
Manley said at the time Democrats joked that the GOP didn’t have an agenda so they created a “nice little acronym,” but that it didn’t change the substance of the committee’s work.
“These things happen all the time,” Manley said. “But this one seems particularly tone deaf at a time Republicans are scrambling to make inroads on issues related to civil rights and minorities.”