Politics Mondays: A Broader Congressional Black Caucus?
When Democrats all but conceded President Bush would get the additional $87 billion he wanted for Iraq and Afghanistan, the Congressional Black Caucus decided to oppose the bill anyway even though four if its members voted for it.
This was not a civil rights question or a matter of racial inequity -- the issues that led to the caucus' creation more than three decades ago.
But these are changing times. Largely due to redistricting, some blacks are now elected from majority-white suburbs, Southern farmlands or thriving business hubs, forcing the caucus to refocus its mission. The agenda is still shaped by the liberal causes of urban black American, but no longer is limited to them.
"It just calls for the caucus to send a message out there that we have sent out in the past but maybe not as clearly: We not only represent African-Americans. We represent the vast majority of Americans," said the group's chairman, Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md.
A decade ago, the caucus might not have weighed in on the extra money for Iraq or even the war itself, which it also opposed, figuring these questions were not unique enough to black constituencies.
But now, the group of 39 Democrats (there are no black Republicans currently in Congress) is taking on topics more national and international in scope.
The caucus was among the first to back President Clinton during the impeachment proceedings. It has opposed judicial nominees, advocated extra Head Start money and backed sending troops to Liberia in addition to questioning Bush aggressively on the mission of the Iraq war.
"Frankly, no other bloc of Congress has consistently asked those questions," said Rep. Artur Davis, D-Ala.
Four of the more moderate caucus members -- Reps. Sanford Bishop and David Scott of Georgia, Harold Ford of Tennessee and Julia Carson of Indiana -- ultimately voted for the $87 billion Iraq aid bill, but none complained loudly or publicly when the caucus took the other side.
"When I was a young man growing up, my mother said, 'You discuss your problems and issues within the family and you leave them inside the house,"' Cummings said. "That may very well be a part of it."
Vanderbilt University law professor Carol Swain, who wrote a book about blacks in Congress, said black Democrats are wise to broaden their vision beyond race.
"When they organized 30 years ago, it was a different country in a lot of respects -- less racially diverse and truly marginalized," said Swain. "When you have a race-based caucus that is as liberal as the black caucus has been in the past, it hinders in some cases the advancement of minority interests."
Swain's view that caucuses based on race have largely outlived their usefulness is rejected by black lawmakers.
"She's not here and we are, so we're going to do it as we see it," said Rep. Bernice Johnson, D-Texas. "We enjoy each other. We develop our positions based upon our input from all of us. It has not gotten in our way. It has been more helpful than not helpful."
Johnson was chairman of the caucus last year with Rep. Gregory Meeks of New York serving as whip. Their districts could not be more different. Hers in inner-city Dallas is poor and heavily black. His in Queens is middle-class, a melting pot of races and cultures.
Their constituencies have put them on different sides of legislation from time to time, but both value the caucus' weekly luncheons and the clout the group wields en masse.
"It's a name brand in Congress that's as good as Coca-Cola," Meeks said.
Rep. John Lewis, a Georgian who has scars from beatings he suffered during the civil rights movement, is one of the Democrats charged with rounding up votes for the party.
"You never should take people's support or votes for granted, but it takes a little more effort and work to try to keep some members of the CBC together," Lewis said. "On campaign finance reform, there were members we literally had to beg, cajole and do everything else. Some members held their nose and voted for it."
Fredrick Harris, director of the Center for the Study of African-American Politics at the University of Rochester, says the caucus is undergoing a natural shift in identity. No longer will its clout come from high numbers of like-minded liberals, he says, but from assuring that the party's moderate wing and predominantly white leadership do not give too much ground to Republicans.
"It will lean toward a watchdog," Harris said. "They still promote issues that disproportionately affect the poor African-Americans. The question becomes, without the black caucus, would the Democrats be as forthcoming on issues involving civil rights?"
Note: This article was written by The Associated Press
Monday, December 1, 2003