Politics Mondays: Exclusive Q & A With Congressman Mel Watt, Chairman, Congressional Black Caucus
Last week, Congressman Mel Watt led the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) to the White House for a meeting with President George W. Bush. The event represented the most publicly-reported act of the Representative of North Carolina's 12th Congressional District, since he was elected to assume the chairmanship of the 43-member group of national Black lawmakers.
With the 109th Congress in session many eyes have turned to the man who in 1992 became one of only two Black members of Congress elected in North Carolina in the 20th century. And as is always the case, the new chair of the Congressional Black Caucus arrives with his or her own unique background and legislative preferences. Uniquely, among his peers, Congressman Watt comes equipped with a background shaped in large part by his District's economy, heavily influenced by the banking industry's presence. Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1967 with a BS degree in Business Administration, and an entrepreneur himself, Mr. Watt's tenure may raise the profile of issues pertaining to Black America's economic condition and its important nuances.
BlackElectorate.com Publisher, Cedric Muhammad spoke with Congressman Mel Watt last Thursday, the day following the Congressional Black Caucus meeting with President Bush about a variety of issues and what he hopes to accomplish as CBC chair.
Cedric Muhammad: First, I wanted to extend my congratulations to you for being elected chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Congressman Watt: Thank You.
Cedric Muhammad: We have had our eyes on you for a while because of our respect for your background in particular. Your focus in Congress has had to be financially-oriented with your position on the financial services committee. And we think those are areas that have been underserved in the interest of the Black electorate. But first I wanted to give you an opportunity to lay out what the CBC priorities are this year, and as it relates to the question of: what do you think is the principal function of the Black Caucus?
Congressman Watt: I think, historically and this year, the focus of the Congressional Black Caucus, the reason for its existence, is to work on closing disparities between African American citizens and the majority citizens in this country, the White American citizens. And in the process of doing that enabling African-Americans to enjoy the full rights of citizenship that America provides to everybody. That is the focus of our agenda this year and I think in one way or another has always been the focus of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Cedric Muhammad: Now this year, have you laid out a set of the key priorities, and specifically I can ask, in terms of your recent meeting with President Bush. Did you lay out an agenda to him in that meeting?
Congressman Watt: Absolutely. That was the whole purpose of the meeting, as I said to the press before the meeting, ‘we don’t have any ego trip about meeting with the President, just to meet with the President', if we are not going to talk about the Congressional Black Caucus agenda, there is no reason for him to be meeting with the Congressional Black Caucus. So, the focus of the meeting from our perspective was to talk about an agenda. The focus of our agenda is closing disparities and that is a broad agenda even though it sounds like a simple agenda, because there are disparities in every single area of our lives. In education, healthcare, healthcare outcomes, jobs and wealth and economic opportunity. In retirement security, on justice issues, on the way we deal with Africa and the Caribbean as opposed to the way our country deals with European and other countries. There are disparities in every area in life, and it is our job to try and work on closing those disparities.
Cedric Muhammad: Was the President receptive in your opinion?
Congressman Watt: Well, I can’t say that he was either receptive or non-receptive. It was a cordial meeting. And the President listened intently to the presentations which were very organized because we had one person describe some of the dramatic disparities that exist between African-Americans and White Americans on each one of the criteria: education, healthcare, and right on down the line. And then we would have a person come right back behind that person and describe some of the policy initiatives that we thought would help close those disparities. And as I sat beside the President – I was sitting right beside him – you could hear him actually grunt like he was being hit in the stomach when he heard some of those dramatic disparities. It was almost like (President Bush was indicating), ‘I have never heard this done quite this way. I didn’t know the disparity was as great as it was.’ So in that sense I could tell that it was having an impact on him, but the breadth of the agenda and the length of the meeting was such; and we did not give him the written agenda until the end of the meeting because I did not want him thumbing through a written document while people were trying to talk to him. So to expect him to immediately respond, ‘Yes I embrace your whole agenda’, I think would have been unrealistic. I think what is more important is what happens next. Because there are two almost immediate opportunities for him to indicate either, ‘I support your agenda’ or ‘I don’t support it’. One opportunity is in the State of the Union address that is coming up, where he can do it from his bully pulpit and talk about it. And the next opportunity will be when he presents his budget to Congress. He can actually put some resources behind trying to close some of these disparities. There will be opportunities for him to respond if he wishes to respond favorably. And we will be watching.
Cedric Muhammad: Now, what I have seen in past years Congressman, in some respects, is the lack of access to the President becoming more of an issue than the agenda or the dialogue that exists. I know that in past years there have been problems with meeting with the President – the desire for the CBC and the President to be together has been a question. Is there anything in terms of a mechanism being set up to better facilitate meetings and dialogue, or is it as simple as just your telephone is available and his telephone is available when you all want to talk to each other?
Congressman Watt: Well, you know, the President of the United States is one of the people in the world that you can’t get a hold to unless he is willing to talk to you. So there is no way I can pick up the phone and speak directly with the President of The United States. He can pick up the phone and speak directly with me. That is pretty easy to do. If the President of The United States calls anybody, probably in the world, nobody is going to say, ‘I am busy, I am not going to talk to you.’ But it doesn’t work like that. It has been an issue about having meetings because the President controls access and the people around him control access to the President and it is important to have meetings so that you can talk about your agenda, and you can try to pin the President down to learn whether he is going to be supportive of you. I hope we don’t spend the next four years arguing about whether we are going to have meetings. I would rather spend that time having meetings, having dialogue, and trying to solicit and gain the President’s support. And if we can get the President’s support, I think we can get a lot of people in America to support our agenda.
Cedric Muhammad: On that key point, one of the things that disappointed us, at BlackElectorate.com a few years ago, was that the CBC budget – a traditional way to dramatize and highlight CBC priorities juxtaposed to the federal budget – was discontinued or downplayed from my point of view. I wanted to know do you have any thoughts of bringing that back or re-emphasizing a CBC budget that would be rolled out in a dramatic fashion?
Congressman Watt: Well, we actually dramatized it quite a bit this past year. There were a couple of years where it was so difficult to make decisions about what the priorities were and the resources were so scarce that if you devoted money to one thing you were going to get criticism from somebody for devoting money to that as opposed to where they wanted you to devote money. So, the budget process is a very difficult process. But last year we worked through it, we went through it religiously. Congressman Bobby Scott, from Virginia was the leader, he was on the budget committee and he kind of worked with each individual Member of the CBC to deal with their issues and their concerns about it. Some of our districts are such that if you make major cutbacks in the military it can have a deleterious effect for particular members when they go back to their own districts. So it gets to be a touchy issue with them. But I think we will have a Congressional Black Caucus budget and we will try to make it a statement of the Congressional Black Caucus priorities – priorities that we believe would help close these disparities that continue to persist.
Cedric Muhammad: Very good. Well, I have to tell you that one of the things that excites me tremendously about you being chairman of the CBC is your background – you represent a district that includes Charlotte, North Carolina, a banking capital and you have tremendous understanding of financial markets. And I have been of the opinion that when it comes to Federal Reserve policy and on certain issues as it pertains to Black-owned banks, we have just not had strong Black political leadership. So I wanted to know how do you think you would bring a greater spotlight on issues like Federal Reserve monetary policy, because my opinion has been that the Black Caucus tends to defer too much to Congressman Barney Frank on monetary policy. I think he does a very good job but I think there are certain nuances to the Black economy that he misses. So I wanted to know, how do you view your chairmanship in light of your background and would you be able to put a greater spotlight on these issues?
Congressman Watt Well, I would like to. I think I bring a particular perspective in these issues. In addition to monetary policy of course, there is predatory lending in the Black Caucus agenda because it is disproportionate in our community - redlining and insurance redlining. That kind of stuff. We need to highlight those issues because those are areas in which if we make different policy choices, if we choose to reduce unemployment as opposed to devoting all of our attention to keeping down inflation, for example. That is kind of where Alan Greenspan is always focusing. He’ll say , OK, 10% unemployment is better than having higher inflation. But, if you kept lowering interest rates, inflation might go up more but employment would go up also. So we have tried to convince Alan Greenspan and the whole Federal Reserve System that keeping interest low and keeping access to capital available and thriving minority banks and businesses is an important part of the economy. And he is not always looking at that as much as we would like for him to. But we will just have to keep that in the spotlight.
Cedric Muhammad: One of your colleagues who has been pretty strong on one point of criticism of Chairman Greenspan, and really the Fed institutionally is – and you just alluded to it – Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr. He has been critical of this adherence by the Fed to the failed economic theory of “The Phillips Curve” or NAIRU (the non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment), this idea that there is a direct correlation between employment and inflation. Blacks and others should be sensitive to this because it basically amounts to the United States being committed to a structural level of unemployment and an economy that is intentionally prevented from growing. Are you convinced that the Fed has abandoned its institutional allegiance to this theory and the policy prescription that grows out of it that essentially maintains that unemployment must be kept down in order to prevent inflation?
Congressman Watt: No, I am not convinced that they have abandoned it. I think what has happened during the Clinton years is that we saw that you could have much, much, lower unemployment than they had ever thought could exist; and that this unemployment could peacefully co-exist with low inflation. So, it kind of exploded the myth that in order to keep inflation low you had to keep unemployment high. And that myth was exploded during the Clinton years. We had low unemployment and we had low inflation. Productivity was growing at tremendous rates because of advances in technology. So that was helping to drive the process. But I am not sure that they have abandoned that construct. They still believe it.
Cedric Muhammad: You made an interesting statement - I think it was a release. It was picked up by some in the media and ignored by others – as it relates to Senator Minority Leader Harry Reid’s comments regarding Justice Clarence Thomas’ written opinions. And over the last year, at BlackElectorate.com, we have written about this dynamic. I think the key quote in your statement was, "I think all of us ought to focus more on substance and less on stereotypes and caricatures." And what I liked about your statement was that it seemed to be non-partisan, and across lines. So, Cynthia McKinney was called a “bitch” by a member of Congress, Cass Ballenger. Condoleezza Rice has been called an “Aunt Jemima” by a White talk-show host and then we have what Senator Reid said, questioning, really, the intellect of Clarence Thomas. Where are your thoughts on that as it relates to the stereotypes and caricatures of Black political figures?
Congressman Watt: I think the person who really deserves the credit for crafting that letter and for focusing on substance rather than caricatures is Eleanor Holmes Norton. She really worked to make sure that we weren’t trying to defend Clarence Thomas as Clarence Thomas but that if you were going to compare Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia with each other, you needed to be comparing them on a substantive basis. There is not a dime’s worth of difference between the two of them in their opinions and in their beliefs about anything that comes before the Supreme Court. And for Senator Reid to be saying somehow that Scalia would be more acceptable as the Chief Justice than Clarence Thomas would be, sounded to us, racist, whether it was coming from a Democrat or coming from a Republican. Let’s talk about the substance. If you look at the substance you may conclude that neither one of them should be considered for Chief Justice of the Supreme Court but you can’t look at the substance and say that somehow Scalia is more acceptable than Clarence Thomas.
Cedric Muhammad: And as it relates to Cynthia being called a “bitch” and Condoleezza an “Aunt Jemima”?
Congressman Watt: Well, I mean I think we need to get away from this name-calling stuff and look at the substance of what people are saying. “Bitch” has some really strong connotations in our community, “Aunt Jemima” has some really strong connotations in our community, and in the broader community I think. But more importantly you can’t start calling people names in politics just because you don’t like the substance of what they are saying.
Cedric Muhammad: Congressman, what is going on back home with Mecklenburg County commissioner Bill James (who recently sent a widely distributed e-mail saying urban blacks "live in a moral sewer,")? Are you familiar with what is happening?
Congressman Watt: Yeah, I am familiar with it. It has kind of died down now. A month or so ago one of our County Commissioners on a local level made some intemperate remarks and he got called on the carpet, and I think he has backed off and he’s learned something from it. I hope he has learned something from it. You have to be careful what you say, and how you say things if you are an elected official. And if you are a public official. I think hopefully he learned something from that experience. I let the local people deal with that. I never injected myself into it because it was a local elected official. Local people in the community, clergy, and other elected officials immediately sprang up and condemned him for it. And I thought it was fine for me to not be ‘piling on’ on that issue. It was being dealt with. And I don’t need to deal with every issue in life.
Cedric Muhammad: Were you satisfied with Senator Barack Obama’s position relative to the irregularities that occurred in Ohio during November’s election?
Congressman Watt: Actually, his position did not differ from my position on that. I voted to accept the electors because I personally didn’t think that the irregularities in Ohio resulted in a different result than if the irregularities did not occur. At the same time, I thought that it was extremely important, absolutely critically important for us to have the opportunity to debate and point out the shortcomings in our democracy, in our voting process, while we are holding ourselves up as the primary democracy in the world – the only true democracy in the world, and trying to tell other people how to have democratic government. Those two things are not inconsistent with each other from my perspective. And I talked to Senator Obama about this before he casted a vote. And the Congressional Black Caucus really had no position on how you voted on that issue. What we were absolutely firm in was that it was necessary to have a debate on it and expose some of the shortcomings in the electoral process. And looking forward to take some steps that this does not happen in the next round of elections.
Cedric Muhammad: So when you read Congressman Conyers’ report, "Preserving Democracy: What Went Wrong in Ohio", you felt that the vote differential would not have been enough to have changed the outcome of the election in Ohio?
Congressman Watt: I didn’t see anything that suggested to me that it would have changed the outcome. I did believe four years earlier that if every vote had been allowed to be counted in Florida you would have had a different President. If we had been given the opportunity to have taken the same vote on Florida, I would have voted not to seat Florida electors because I thought that the inequities and prevention of people from voting really affected the outcome of the election.
Cedric Muhammad: Finally, I think the first time you and I met actually was in 2001 in a forum that the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation (CBCF) Fellows put on a forum where I was a panelist on reparations. And you made the statement that you were listening primarily to your constituents on that issue, and at that time, you had not received a phone call from your constituents advocating for your support of the issue. So I wanted to know do you see a groundswell in the reparations movement? Have more of your constituents called you on it? Or do you think that is an issue that has a popular cultural sentiment but very little political advocacy behind it?
Congressman Watt: Well, first of all I got a groundswell of responses from my constituents after I made that statement, which is fine because the point I was trying to make is that its impossible for legislators to change policy unless the groundswell for support for changing that policy comes from the people. You can only do, politically, what the public is able to convince needs to be done politically. And that was the point I was making. I did get a lot of feedback and I am a co-sponsor of the bill (HR 40). There is a lot of misunderstanding about this issue, on everybody’s part because everybody really says, ‘OK, either you support reparations or you don’t support reparations’. The real issue is the bill does not support or reject reparations, what it supports is the setting up of a dignified process and commission to look at how you would determine reparations; who would get them; how you would calculate what was due; whether it would be more advantageous to do it in one fell swoop and allow White America to say, ‘we are through with this, we paid our reparations and we are never going to do anything else’; and whether it is better to continue to work over time to address that. There are some very difficult issues that need to be dealt with and the bill allows that to be done. A lot of the reparations supporters think that the bill would deliver reparations but it won’t. There is misunderstanding on both sides of that issue, I think that there is more discussion about it and we certainly had more discussion about it as a result of my comments, back in my Congressional District.
Cedric Muhammad: Well, Congressman Watt, I thank you so much for your time and please by all means let’s keep in touch I really want to emphasize a lot of the monetary, economic and banking-oriented issues as it relates to our community.
Congressman Watt: Well we would love to hear your perspective, particularly as we are coming up on hearings where Alan Greenspan comes and testifies. You know he talks in such code (laughter) it is difficult to ask a question of him because he has to be the best dancer I know, and you know what I mean by that.
Cedric Muhammad: Yes (laughter). And we will send you off some stuff on that. Thank you so much. Take Care Brother.
Congressman Watt: Alright.
Monday, January 31, 2005