Georgia’s Johnson finds a role in Congress post-Ferguson

House Republicans have their biggest majority since 1930, and the GOP just claimed the Senate.

U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson of Lithonia sits in a safe district, but last year he had to beat back a stiff primary challenge premised on the notion that Johnson is inarticulate and therefore ineffective. In some corners he will never live down what he called a botched committee hearing joke about whether the island of Guam could tip over.

Yet at the dawn of the 114th Congress, Johnson is dropping a flurry of bills on the House Judiciary Committee. The bills are mostly long shots — as anything piloted by a House Democrat would be — but Johnson has positioned himself as a key legislative arm of the “Black Lives Matter” protest movement, following the recent deaths of black men at the hands of police.

Johnson will soon reintroduce a trio of bills he pushed late last year. The first was a much-discussed restriction on local police departments’ ability to get military surplus, banning some high-grade material and requiring local civilian authorities to authorize such purchases.

A second Johnson bill would require a special prosecutor to examine in a public court hearing whether charges should be brought when a law enforcement officer kills someone, which Johnson said would “add a layer of accountability.” This would take the cases out of the hands of local prosecutors who critics allege are too cozy with police and blame for grand juries’ unwillingness to bring charges in the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner in New York City.

Johnson also would allow the Department of Justice to conduct murder investigations in such cases, instead of examining civil rights violations — which have a high standard of proof.

Johnson did have some GOP allies on the military surplus effort, including U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., a likely presidential contender. No Republicans signed onto the special prosecutor or federal murder charge bills when Johnson introduced them in the final days of the last Congress.

The House Judiciary Committee won’t comment on bills that aren’t yet in its hopper, but Johnson is not counting on a swift embrace.

“Well, we’re going to continue to push to generate co-sponsors, and that in and of itself creates momentum for the bills to rise to the level of a subcommittee hearing and then a full committee hearing for markup of that legislation,” Johnson said. “So we’ve got a lot of work to do, and we look forward over the next two years to be successful.”

Law enforcement groups — from sheriffs to police chiefs to the rank-and-file officers — lined up against the proposals.

The manhunt for the Boston Marathon bombers proved the need for military-grade equipment for law enforcement, said Bill Johnson, the executive director of the National Association of Police Organizations. He called the special prosecutor idea “bogus” for remaking the grand jury process because “you don’t like the result.” Bill Johnson added that the Justice Department does not need additional authority to investigate murders.

Hank Johnson does not garner the attention of some more high-profile members of the Congressional Black Caucus, but his bills have positioned him as perhaps law enforcement groups’ biggest post-Ferguson legislative foil.

“If not unique, he’s one of the few who in the face of all that (opposition) doesn’t seem to acknowledge the legitimate concerns with his proposals,” Bill Johnson said, “and just keeps plowing ahead with them.”

And he intends to keep plowing, despite the odds.

The permanent campaign

U.S. Rep. Rick Allen, an Evans Republican, had a spring in his step Tuesday on his first day on the job, and he seemed like a guy who really gets a kick out of being a congressman.

The construction business owner upended U.S. Rep. John Barrow, an Augusta Democrat, in Georgia’s only competitive House district. And as he talked about his early experiences, he sounded like he was still on the trail, lobbing attacks at Barrow.

“This district hasn’t really had our congressman since (Evans Republican) Charlie Norwood,” Allen said as he walked through the basement of a U.S. House office building. “I don’t know how you move into a district and you’re their congressman. I’ve been there 37 years.”

Allen also pointed out that Barrow sold his house to move home to Athens. Redistricting had forced him to move to Savannah then Augusta to remain in the 12th District.

Perhaps Allen is worried about a rematch, though Barrow’s real estate moves would indicate otherwise. Some Georgia Democrats are likely to woo Barrow to run for statewide office, but he’s been silent about post-Congress plans so far.

Vote of the week

The U.S. House voted, 266-153, to force the Obama administration to approve the Keystone XL pipeline.

Yes – Rick Allen, R-Evans; Sanford Bishop, D-Albany; Buddy Carter, R-Pooler; Doug Collins, R-Gainesville; Tom Graves, R-Ranger; Jody Hice, R-Monroe; Barry Loudermilk, R-Cassville; Tom Price, R-Roswell; Austin Scott, R-Tifton; David Scott, D-Atlanta; Lynn Westmoreland, R-Coweta County; Rob Woodall, R-Lawrenceville.

No – Hank Johnson, D-Lithonia; John Lewis, D-Atlanta.

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