For 40 years, the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) has used it’s bully pulpit to advocate, persuade, stall, negotiate and, ultimately, to legislate. Through many highs, a few lows and more than a couple attacks, the CBC now finds itself in a unique position — the defender of historic policies that have a positive impact on America in general, and black America, specifically.
Consider this: Over the last two years, President Obama with key partners on Capitol Hill, including members of the CBC, achieved several legislative victories. In addition to efforts to steady the economy (e.g., the bailout of the auto industry and $787 billion economic stimulus bill), others include the largest rewrite of rules regulating Wall Street since the Great Depression; FDA regulation of cigarettes; new credit card consumer protections; increased Pell grants for college students; extended unemployment benefits; and the massive overhaul of the health care system, which guarantees quality, affordable health care to more than 45 million uninsured Americans, including those with preexisting medical conditions.
In an interview with Rolling Stone, presidential biographer Douglas Brinkley said recently that Obama˙s accomplishments to date put him in the same league with former presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. And American Enterprise Institute scholar Norm Ornstein had similar views:
“If you’re looking at the first two-year legislative record you really don’t have any rivals since Lyndon Johnson and that includes Ronald Reagan.”
While there is still much work to do — unemployment, for instance, remains stubbornly high — these last two years have proven incredibly beneficial for the African-American community. The CBC was an important part of those efforts.
But now the Congressional Black Caucus must switch gears.
CBC members were uniquely impacted when Republicans won control of the House of Representatives last November. As noted in the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies Midterm Analysis, in the 112th Congress, which is being sworn-in today, CBC members lose three full committee chairmanships and more than a dozen subcommittee chairmanships. As a result, their influence is greatly diminished. (It’s worth noting here that while the CBC is overwhelmingly comprised of Democrats it is officially non-partisan. Black Republicans are encouraged to join).
To be sure, the new GOP House majority has a different view of the world. Rolling back many Obama administration achievements supported by the CBC is at the top of their agenda.
But this is not a new position for the CBC. They played defense before — and got positive results.
When Republicans controlled the House from 1995 to 2001, CBC members worked with a Democratic president and other allies to advance key policies, including a major expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit, enactment of the Family Medical Leave Act, creation of the State Children’s Health Program, creation of AmeriCorps, and passage of the Brady Bill, which required federal background checks on firearms purchased across the country.
Those gains and others were realized because the caucus stuck together, relied on the expertise of its members and worked with other caucuses and allies in the Senate and the White House.
For the 112th Congress, a key factor in keeping the Caucus together will be it’s leadership. And in that regard, the CBC seems to have gotten in right. Today, the affable Emanuel Cleaver, a three-term Congressman from Kansas City, was installed as the new CBC chair. Measured and thoughtful, the former pastor is not the stereotypical, dart-throwing liberal. He makes his points clearly and comes off as a reasonable man with a considered opinion.
But he can only do so much by himself.
To help the president guard the impressive achievements of the 111th Congress, CBC members must recognize their collective strength and use it strategically to blunt any assault on middle class Americans. Just crying foul won’t work.
Or, perhaps I should say it like Irma Hall’s character, “Mother Joe”, did on Soul Food a few years back:
“One finger pointing the blame don’t make no impact. But you ball up all them fingers into a fist and you can strike a mighty blow.”
With 44 fingers, er, members, its largest number to date, the CBC is poised to do just that.
I am hopeful they will.