The CBC to Exercise Greater Power in New Congress

In January a new president and a very different Congress will be sworn into office and members of the Congressional Black Caucus will have more clout than ever before.

As in the outgoing Congress, several CBC members will head powerful committees and subcommittees, including New York Rep. Charlie Rangel of Ways and Means, Michigan Rep. John Conyers of Judiciary, and Mississippi Rep. Bennie Thompson of Homeland Security. New York Rep. Edolphus Townes is in line to chair the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee. Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina will continue his role as House majority whip, the chamber’s third most powerful leadership position. What’s different is that the 42-member group that calls itself “the conscious of the Congress” will finally be able to shape and pass legislation that will provide relief to African Americans in rural and urban communities as well as other members of the diverse constituencies they represent.

“The most fundamental change obviously is a president who can now sign legislation versus a president who’s using the veto pen,” says Alabama Rep. Artur Davis, who sits on the Ways and Means and Judiciary committees and is rumored to be considering a run for governor in his state. Davis believes that much of the committees’ work in the past two years has been largely rhetorical because neither the Senate or President Bush were willing to support their proposals. “The expanded Democratic majority in the Senate and a Democratic president now make the work of the committees, crafting legislation, and every Democratic member instantaneously more important.”

Outspoken California Rep. Maxine Waters, a Judiciary committee member and chair of the Financial Services subcommittee on housing and opportunity, also anticipates that the CBC will wield much greater power in the next Congress. She says, “The CBC as a bloc of votes has the potential for a lot of power. Forty-two votes organized for or against any measure could determine its fate. In addition, we have CBC members who are chairs of substantial committees and will lead the policy. So we will have a most important and influential role in determining the direction of the House and public policy in next the next Congress.”

According to Waters, CBC members will be very involved in economic issues, such as the proposed bailout of the auto industry; providing universal health care and funding for research on a variety of related issues, such as HIV and AIDS; and housing. “On my subcommittee, we are already taking a lead on negotiating with and confronting Treasury on the modification of foreclosed properties and bad loans and trying to keep homeowners in their homes,” she says. Additional priorities will be determined during an upcoming CBC retreat.

The CBC announced last week at a Capitol Hill news conference that it has elected California Rep. Barbara Lee to serve as its next chair. Lee, who ran for the chairmanship unopposed, had initially bid for the role in 2006, but stepped aside to avoid a divisive race against Michigan Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, whom