A senior aide to President Joe Biden misleadingly claimed that congressional Republicans “defunded the police” when they voted against the American Rescue Plan Act. House and Senate Republicans didn’t support the legislation, but it wasn’t a vote to cut or eliminate federal funding for law enforcement, as the claim may have led viewers to believe.
Cedric Richmond, a senior adviser to the president and director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, made the claim during a June 27 interview on “Fox News Sunday.” He was asked to respond to Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham’s statement that Biden’s proposed plan to address rising crime across the country would not work because a “declared war on the police” was “backfiring on those who have done it.”
“Senator Graham doesn’t have a clue. And let’s talk about who defunded the police,” Richmond said, referring to the controversial concept of terminating or shifting funds away from police budgets that some Democrats and activists embraced in 2020 after a Black man, George Floyd, was killed by a white police officer.
“When we were in Congress last year trying to pass a rescue plan … an emergency relief plan for cities that were cash-strapped and laying off police and firefighters, it was the Republicans who objected to it. And in fact, they didn’t get funding until the American Rescue Plan, which our plan allowed state and local governments to replenish their police departments and do the other things that are needed.”
“So, look, Republicans are very good at staying on talking points of who says defund the police. But the truth is, they defunded the police. We funded crime intervention and a whole bunch of other things,” Richmond continued.
Richmond was referencing the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package that Biden signed into law on March 11, as the U.S. economy continued to rebound from the coronavirus pandemic. That bill passed in both houses of Congress with only Democratic support. It provided additional recovery money to lower-level governments, which could spend some of the money for law enforcement. But there was no requirement to do so.
Richmond’s claim suggested that Republicans voted to cut or reduce existing federal funding to police departments — which is what some who truly want to “defund the police” advocate. That’s not what happened.
Additional Recovery Funds
The American Rescue Plan included hundreds of billions in additional economic relief for individuals and small businesses, including direct stimulus payments and expanded unemployment benefits. Among other things, it also provided over $350 billion in emergency funds to help state, county, city and tribal governments make up for revenue that was lost during pandemic-related shutdowns.
When the bill passed in a 50-49 Senate vote on March 6, Biden said it meant that “states and local governments that have lost tens of thousands of essential workers” because of layoffs would now “have the resources they need available to them, to those laid-off police officers, firefighters, teachers and nurses they can rehire.” And after Biden signed the bill into law on March 11, national police organizations also touted the emergency funding available to lower governments to maintain public safety services.
However, the section of the bill outlining the “Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds” did not stipulate that the relief funding had to be used on police officers or for other law enforcement initiatives.
This is how a March 18 Treasury Department fact sheet summarized the recovery fund: “The Rescue Plan will provide needed relief to state, local, and Tribal governments to enable them to continue to support the public health response and lay the foundation for a strong and equitable economic recovery. In addition to helping these governments address the revenue losses they have experienced as a result of the crisis, it will help them cover the costs incurred due responding to the public health emergency and provide support for a recovery – including through assistance to households, small businesses and nonprofits, aid to impacted industries, and support for essential workers. It will also provide resources for state, local, and Tribal governments to invest in infrastructure, including water, sewer, and broadband services.”
Even the May 10 fact sheet on the Treasury’s proposed interim final rule on how to use the recovery funds noted that “recipients have broad flexibility to decide how best to use this funding to meet the needs of their communities.”
Also, Republicans in Congress did not say they opposed the legislation because some of the relief funds would potentially go to police departments.
At least one consistent GOP criticism of the overall bill — which we wrote about — was that only a small percentage of it was specifically earmarked for health spending related to COVID-19.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy also criticized the total cost of the legislation and said that many states actually had budget surpluses and didn’t really need additional emergency funds.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell similarly denounced the COVID-19 relief bill for including “completely unrelated left-wing pet priorities,” as well as “sending $350 billion to bail out long-mismanaged state and local governments.” He also argued that the bill — at a total cost of nearly $2 trillion — was about the same size as the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, which was signed into law near the start of the pandemic in March 2020 and provided about $150 billion in direct assistance to state and local governments.
And when White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki was pressed in a June 30 press briefing to name a single Republican who had opposed the bill because of the additional funding for police, she didn’t identify one. Instead, Psaki said: “So if you oppose funding for the COPS program — something that was dramatically cut by the prior administration and many Republicans supported — and then you vote against a bill that has funding for the COPS program, we can let other people evaluate what that means. It doesn’t require them to speak to it or to shout it out; their actions speak for themselves.”
Psaki was talking about the Community Oriented Policing Services program, which provides federal funding for hiring police officers, as well as nonhiring initiatives such as law enforcement training. As president, Donald Trump did propose cutting COPS funding, but Congress ultimately increased funding for the program throughout his presidency. And while the American Rescue Plan included funding that could be used to rehire or compensate police officers, it wasn’t specifically tied to the COPS program.
White House Response
When we asked the White House about Richmond’s defunding claim — as well as Psaki’s defense of it in press briefings — an official directed us to a June 29 statement that White House Deputy Press Secretary Andrew Bates issued to a Fox News congressional correspondent. That statement also pointed to the American Rescue Plan funding to state and local governments, and the COPS program.
“The President ran and won decisively on a platform of increasing funding for law enforcement, against an opponent who not only spent his entire term attempting to cut the COPS program – with the support of congressional Republicans – but who also blocked critical resources needed to prevent the laying off of police officers at a time of rising crime,” Bates said in the statement, which was published in a tweet.
“The President, with the backing of leading law enforcement groups, secured the money that his predecessor opposed – to keep cops on the beat – and every single Republican member of Congress voted against it. They continue to oppose the American Rescue Plan even as it delivers the rehiring of police in their districts. The President is also fulfilling his campaign promise of fighting for hundreds of millions of dollars in additional funding for the COPS program, as a central element of a comprehensive approach to the higher crime rates he inherited, alongside addressing gun violence directly, implementing prevention programs and dealing with root causes.”
The White House official also told us that some Republicans in Congress have suggested that unspent funding authorized for state and local governments could be rescinded or reallocated to pay for other proposals, such as Republican-supported infrastructure plans.
To that point, a June 29 blog post on the website of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — which carried the headline “House Republicans Vote to Defund Police – Again” — emphasized that Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee that day voted in favor of an amendment to a funding bill that would stop local governments from receiving the second portion of American Rescue Plan money that is scheduled to be released in 2022.
“What we are talking about is an extremely large amount of money that local governments didn’t ask for, that in many respects don’t need, and to this moment in time don’t even know how they would effectively spend this kind of money,” said Republican Rep. Steve Womack of Arkansas, who proposed the amendment, which failed in a 23-34 vote. He argued that because “we’re on the tail end of COVID,” it would be “irresponsible” for members of the committee “to continue to shovel money out the door” because of the disease.
The two parties clearly disagree on how much money state and local governments need to recover from the pandemic. However, voting against a bill that includes additional money that may be used to bolster police departments is not the same thing as reducing or redistributing existing federal funding for police, as Richmond’s remarks suggested.
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