A lot has been said about the Biden administration’s strategy for passing a comprehensive Covid relief package. A key question: will the President insist on bipartisan support or should he go it alone and pass a bill that addresses the urgency of the moment for so many Americans with only Democratic support? If he chooses the latter option, he would use the legislative technique called “reconciliation,” a term that has a different meaning in government-speak than in general usage.
We think of reconciliation generally as bringing together two disparate (sometimes hostile) entities to achieve a compromise that can foster agreement on both sides, even if neither party is completely satisfied with the final outcome. In the case that has made recent headlines, however, reconciliation means pushing a bill through Congress by needing only 51 votes in the Senate (in the current evenly divided Senate, Vice President Harris would cast the 51st vote), instead of the more customary 60 votes needed to hold off a filibuster.
Frequent references to reconciliation in recent news cycles has led me to recall the time when I first heard the term used in a political sense, and which lines up with the more traditional use of the term. It was in the post-apartheid era in South Africa as civic and government leaders sought a way to promote national healing after the excruciating experience of apartheid where racial divisions led to violence, death and social dislocation. How, the world wondered, could a nation heal after generations of such division with one side being so privileged while the other side was so oppressed?
The answer to the question lay in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Begun in the 1990’s and chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the TRC was a court-like, restorative justice body where both victims of human rights violations and perpetrators could give statements about their experiences. The mandate of the commission was to bear witness to, record, and in some cases grant amnesty to the perpetrators of crimes relating to human rights violations, as well as offering reparation and rehabilitation to the victims.
In this healing process, past sins were not ignored. Rather, truths were told; individuals and groups were held accountable (albeit imperfectly) for actions that led to hardships, suffering and even death based on apartheid’s racial divide before reconciliation could begin. Current covid relief politics aside, the US could learn from South Africa and embark upon a truth and reconciliation commission of its own at this pivotal moment in our nation’s history.
In the political chatter leading up to the second impeachment trial of Donald Trump, a consensus is emerging among Republicans that we must not dwell on the past, that an impeachment trial would further divide our nation and that we should look only to the future where we have plenty of work ahead (much of it left in the aftermath of the chaotic Trump administration) and we’ll need a unified country to resolve the pressing issues that confront us.
However, part of what made the South African post-apartheid experiment so successful lies in the first word in the commission’s title: truth. It is essential that we as a nation own our truth, hold Donald Trump and his enablers in Congress accountable, hear from the victims of his various misdeeds and then work towards reconciliation.
On a host of issues that extend well beyond the single article of impeachment that the House sent to the Senate—from the wanton disregard for American lives in his handling of the coronavirus to his separating children from their parents at our southern border—one of the few ways to ensure that truth will not be dismissed or ignored lies in the upcoming impeachment trial of Donald Trump. Unless we continue to try to throw open the doors of truth, we are destined to never achieving the reconciliation among those who differ from one another that our nation so desperately craves.