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Rep. French Hill On Supporting Commission To Probe Insurrection, Bill To Fund Black Colleges

U.S. Rep. French Hill of Arkansas' 2nd congressional district, seen here in 2018, was one of 35 Republicans to join Democrats in voting to support creation of an independent commission to probe the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
Michael Hibblen

A bill in Congress which would create an independent commission to investigate the violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol in January is now in the hands of the Senate. A week ago, the House passed the bill with 35 Republicans joining Democrats to support the proposal.

But the future of the bill is unclear with Democrats needing the support of 10 Republicans to avoid a possible filibuster. GOP leadership is opposing an investigation.

One Republican House member who did vote to create the commission was Rep. French Hill of Arkansas’ 2nd district. He spoke with KUAR News on Wednesday afternoon during All Things Considered.

Why did you support this bill?

REP. FRENCH HILL: Well, after the events of January 6th that just left our country in shock by the destruction in the Capitol and the risk to members of the House and Senate and our vice president, about two weeks after that, I co-sponsored Rodney Davis, a Republican from Illinois's bill, to create a bipartisan commission. I thought it was important that we look into why there were security failures at the Capitol. Why was our Capitol Police so vulnerable? Were there intelligence reports that they knew about or their bosses knew about that we could have reinforced that group and better prepared for that rally on the Capitol grounds, which is a very common occurrence in Washington, of course, but they don't turn violent, as we saw on January 6th.

So, number one was, I think a bipartisan commission with Republican leadership and Republican impact and equal subpoena capacity is the way to get to the truth. But what Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi knew and when in preparation for securing the capital on that critical day.

There has been growing pressure from Republican leadership, as well as former President Trump, to reject creating this commission. Have you gotten any kind of flack for your support of this?

I really haven't. And when I look at my constituent responses, it's about even Michael. When you look at emails and telephone calls to our offices, there were a lot of Arkansans in this district that did not support the formation of the commission, but there were almost an equal number that supported it.

Here's my view. The existing investigations by the Department of Justice or by the House or Senate committees are controlled by Democrats. They're going to control the narrative, the witnesses, the subpoenas. And so, I thought this was better to make it a bipartisan, equally formed commission to look at it dispassionately about the security failures that day at the Capitol. That's why I supported it and that's why I have concerns over leaving it in the existing investigatory hands, which are all controlled by the Democratic Party in the House and Senate and now in the executive branch.

Since passing the House, I haven't seen anything about action in the Senate. Do you know the status of the bill in that chamber?

The Senate is working to take the bill up. They have to get consensus to do that. Leader [Chuck] Schumer and Minority Leader [Mitch] McConnell were on the floor discussing it yesterday, and there may well be a vote here on it to see if they can move it. And you're right, Leader McConnell may have some ways to strengthen the bipartisan nature of the commission that could lead to a change in it. And of course, I would welcome the decision taken by the Republicans and Democrats in the Senate to try to make this commission even more bipartisan or more successful

On to another bill, one which you're co-sponsoring, it would increase federal funding for historically Black colleges and universities. Your co-sponsor, Rep. Alma Adams, a Democrat of North Carolina, called this the "most transformative legislation" ever for Black schools. First, tell me how this came about.

Well, I'm blessed to represent central Arkansas, and a part of that representation is that there are four historically black colleges and universities here in central Arkansas. Philander Smith, Arkansas Baptist College, Shorter College, which is the only private two-year HBCU in the whole country, and then our land-grant university, the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, which, while it is in [Rep. Bruce] Westerman’s congressional district, is a big part of metro Little Rock's workforce preparation and career university for education purposes. So, I'm the co-chair of this Congress of the HBCU Caucus in the House. That is an overwhelmingly bipartisan caucus, there are over a hundred members now. And in the Senate, the caucus is led by Republican Tim Scott, senator from South Carolina, and Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware, and the four of us have introduced this bill together.

The purpose is to target grants that can aid in infrastructure, building related renovations on those campuses. Many of these campuses are 150-years-old, for example, have a lot of challenges, but they're very successful. 30% of STEM graduates in the African-American community come out of our HBCUs, and this grant program would encourage private philanthropy. And for the state schools, like UAPB, it would encourage state taxpayer support to make sure these schools are competitive in their key educational facilities like laboratories, lecture halls, broadband access and the like.

Do we know how much money we're talking about here?

The GAO, the Government Accountability Office did a study of all 100- plus HBCU schools across the country, both public and private, and came up with an estimate about the historic preservation buildings or building infrastructure needs. Of the several million dollars a year, about half the campuses had some facilities that would need long-term sustainable improvements. So, it'll be several million dollars a year.

I've recommended to the appropriation committees that we consider using other higher ed dollars that are unprogrammed in the Department of Higher Education or use Cares Act, or American Rescue money that's not going to get spent, that's not going to be allocated in a very targeted way to help support this effort. It is a competitive grant program. And as I say, local taxpayer support or private philanthropic support will aid in that grant process.

And finally, what's the status of the bill?

It's just now being introduced in both the House and Senate, and you'll see committees hold hearings on it in our education and labor committees in the House and Senate, and I look forward to seeing the progress.

Michael Hibblen was a journalist for KUAR News from May 2009 — December 2022. During his final 10 years with the station, he served as News Director. In January 2023, he was hired by Arkansas PBS to become its Senior Producer/ Director of Public Affairs.
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