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There once was a time when members of the Congressional Black Caucus spoke and people listened. That time has come and gone. Today, the group, with a few exceptions, has very little power to shape and influence legislation that affects African Americans.
Thirty-plus years after its inception, the CBC has tripled in size. So why has that once-strong voice withered down to little more than a whisper?
The easy answer is that their double-minority status has placed the CBC’s 43 members in an untenable position. With Republicans in power in the White House and Congress, “they can no longer use leverage to attach items to budgets and other legislation that would incrementally advance the interests of blacks,” says Robert Smith, a political scientist at San Francisco State University.
The CBC now includes a new generation of black legislators cut from a less traditional cloth than civil rights era politicians, adds Michael Fauntroy, assistant professor of public policy at George Mason University. Younger members don’t, for example, always vote uniformly. These newer members “don’t seem to be committed to the same level of activism. You have people supporting things they never would have a generation ago,” says Fauntroy.
CBC Chair Mel Watt (D-N.C.) voted against the Central American-Dominican Republic Free Trade Agreement because it would hurt textile workers in his district. Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.), on the other hand, fought hard for the bill because of the benefits it would bring the Port of New Orleans. CAFTA passed. Ten members also voted for a controversial bankruptcy bill that some believe doesn’t prevent predatory practices.
Watt says it’s unrealistic to expect unwavering agreement. “We shouldn’t be held to a standard of unity that is unreasonable and not expected of anyone else in [Congress].” He has narrowed the group’s agenda to issues related to education, healthcare, employment and economic security, building wealth, business development, retirement security, and equity in foreign policy.
Smith argues the CBC is just going through the motions. “I think they present agendas in an unreflective way because they have no chance of succeeding. They should use their resources, C-Span time, appearances around the country and in their districts to try — even in this current conservative climate — to build support with the help of black scholars and organizations. When the climate changes, and it surely will, there will be something to work from.”
Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.) agrees that the CBC spends its time ineffectively. “Those out of power are too busy sulking about not being in power rather than hammering out a public policy agenda. What the CBC really needs is a public policy person.”
So why have a Caucus at all? As long as we have a Congress that does not speak to the concerns of black people, “we’re always going to need a voice inside,” says author and activist Kevin Powell, who is seeking the seat of incumbent Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.). “Part of the problem is that black leaders are constantly in crisis mode. I want to see more CBC members like the
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