on the hill

House Judiciary Committee advances domestic terrorism bill amid partisan spat

The legislation was backed by the Anti-Defamation League, the Orthodox Union and others

Andrew Harnik-Pool/Getty Images

Rep. Dan Bishop, (R-NC), speaks as Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Peter Gaynor testifies before a House Committee on Homeland Security meeting on Capitol Hill, July 22, 2020, in Washington, D.C.

The House Judiciary Committee approved the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act on Wednesday following a heated, lengthy partisan debate involving vaccination mandates and school boards, despite the legislation previously having received bipartisan support.

The bill, which passed out of the committee by a vote of 21-17, would create offices within the Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice and FBI dedicated to combating domestic terrorism; require regular assessments to Congress of the domestic terrorism threat; and provide training and resources to state, local and tribal law enforcement agencies.

The bill, backed by Jewish groups including the Anti-Defamation League, the Orthodox Union and the Jewish Democratic Council of America, targets the rising threat of white supremacist, neo-Nazi and other right-wing extremist violence in the United States.

Partisan disputes over the legislation dragged the committee’s debate across three separate committee meetings. The bill has the support of 205 House Democrats and three Republicans. In 2020, similar legislation passed the House by a voice vote with 180 Democratic sponsors, but stalled in the Senate.

Committee Republicans tied some of their concern about the legislation to false claims that the FBI and DOJ were targeting and investigating parents as domestic terrorists for expressing their opinions at school board meetings, efforts those members said would be furthered by the legislation. The FBI efforts related to threats against school officials.

Republicans also expressed concerns about the legislation being used to target people who declined to take vaccines, pointing to a February Department of Homeland Security bulletin warning that false narratives around COVID-19 had inspired violent attacks in the previous year. That discussion devolved at times into a broader dispute around vaccinations and COVID-19 policy.

The wide-ranging debate further touched on issues from Iranian oil sales to the Black Lives Matter movement to writer Bari Weiss’ 2020 resignation from The New York Times.

“This legislation recently enjoyed bipartisan support because we didn’t know that you meant something different by domestic terrorism than we thought you meant, but if you mean parents of school children are domestic terrorists and we can’t get a clear answer on whether you’re going to pursue that or not, the questions get harder to answer,” Rep. Dan Bishop (R-NC), one of the bill’s most outspoken opponents, said. “It really serves to emphasize that this bill is rotten under the circumstances.”

Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-PA) dismissed such concerns as “distracting faux arguments that are putting up faux information without ever going back to what is the purpose of this bill. We know that hate crimes exist in this country, we know that hate crimes are on the rise… I don’t know why the folks on the other side of the aisle don’t join us in that fight against domestic terrorism.”

Outside groups backing the legislation decried the direction of the debate.

“The bipartisan bill is carefully crafted [and] would legislate important and useful measures to combat domestic terrorism and violence. That’s why it’s had bipartisan support — and the support of the OU and other nonpartisan groups concerned about the safety of the Jewish community and American society more broadly,” OU Advocacy Center Executive Director Nathan Diament told JI. “Given the threats that are out there and endanger people’s lives, we hope that extraneous issues don’t derail the overdue passage of this legislation.”

ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt told JI he was “disappointed by efforts of certain members to derail the [Judiciary Committee meeting] by focusing on tangential or blatantly false digressions.”

“The bill has more than 200 cosponsors and enjoys not only bipartisan support in Congress but also broad support among the public. ADL has worked closely with both the civil rights community — including the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights — and police associations to secure support for this bill,” Greenblatt added. “Domestic terrorism is not a Democratic or Republican problem — it is an American problem and one we must address together..”

JDCA CEO Halie Soifer told JI Republicans’ opposition to the bill was “deeply disappointing, though not surprising” and “made a mockery of the bill by offering ridiculous amendments.”