For Black Caucus, African-American politics in an age of austerity

The Congressional Black Caucus Foundation held its annual legislative conference this week — four days of conferences, panels, receptions and parties that mark the unofficial start of the fall political season.

Congress is back in session after its late summer recess, so members dart back and forth between their forums and receptions to the House floor, where on Thursday and Friday, various members including Rep. John Lewis took turns denouncing the GOP vote to slash $40 billion from the SNAP program — a move that would cut 3.8 million people, half of them children and one in ten of them seniors, off food assistance — if the bill wasn’t dead on arrival in the Senate.

That’s part of the ritual futility of the Washington in which the 43 black caucus members (including two non-voting members from the U.S. Virgin Islands and the District of Columbia. South Carolina’s African-American Senator, Tim Scott, is not a member) operate. The body in which they serve as a distinct but unified minority, is often in high theater, but rarely in a position to actually make law.

Much of what comes out of the House is ideological whimsy from the belly of America’s far right wing, accompanied by Democratic head shaking and palm-to-forehead exhortations by veteran staffers that they’ve never seen a Washington this bizarre and broken.

In a city gripped by austerity — from the ongoing drag of the sequester to the tea party’s fixation on cutting even more spending and their impossible, obsessive dream of defunding the Affordable Care Act — the CBC remains focused on bread and butter issues. Their forums (including one I moderated, put on by Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings on transportation and infrastructure) focus on how to get more minority firms access to lucrative federal contracting, and on how to unwind the implacable puzzle of black unemployment, which has remained at double white unemployment in good times and bad — but especially in bad.

The caucus enjoys warmer relations with the White House than at any time since Barack Obama entered the White House. Current chair Rep. Marcia Fudge, who was honored Thursday night at a reception in which she was praised by White House senior advisor Valerie Jarrett, was not yet in congress during the bitter days of the 2008 primary, when her predecessor, Ohio Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones, was among the most vocal Hillary Clinton supporters. (Several other Caucus members were also in attendance, including early Obama endorser, Rep. Barbara Lee, who famously cast a lonely vote against the Iraq war in 2003.)

The caucus split roughly down the middle in the 2008 primary, but their constituents went solidly for Obama. That led to grumblings about crimped influence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for the black caucus during Obama’s first term, and pointed critiques of the White House’s reticence at directly challenging the forces calcifying black economic progress, or at least calling them by name.

With the presidential re-elect behind them, the caucus still faces the calcification, with little thaw in black unemployment or disparities in income and net worth, as the most recent, and depressing Census figures show.

The media relishes the occasional skirmishes between black members and the first black president, but most members and staffers shrug them off as far less important than the high stakes struggle to arrest the deficits in African-American economic stability. The reality is that even with a black caucus that is larger than at any time in its history, there’s little that 43 out of 435 House members can do, absent a majority consensus in the increasingly mad House.

Some are still hoping for a dramatic effort from the White House, which points to presidential initiatives on health care and education as just that. It’s a view not broadly shared across the Capitol. And anyway, anything this president proposed would be killed on arrival by the House’s right flank.

In Washington, conundrums compound conundrums.

And yet, amid a tragic mass shooting that rattled Washington, and a running threat by their House conservative colleagues to shut down the government over Obamacare, or blow it up entirely by breaching the debt ceiling, the CBC’s annual conference rolled on.

And with the president set to address the group tonight, the question of whether the “conscience of the congress” can find a way to move the needle on issues critical to black Americans remains unanswered.

Follow Joy Reid on Twitter at @thereidreport.