The Vanishing Congressional Black Caucus
The Congressional Black Caucus recently grabbed a brief headline when former Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore took a big swipe at President Bush at the group's annual dinner. But apart from Gore's outburst, and the Republican counterattack, the Caucus might as well have held its big bash on the moon for all the attention it got.
The Caucus's public vanishing act began in 1994 when the Republicans assumed near total domination of the House. They slashed congressional funds for Caucus functions, abolished the Post Office, Civil Service, and the District of Columbia Committees, which had sizable number of black members, and reduced the size of all standing committees. This cost blacks seats on several important policy making committees, and eliminated committee staff jobs, many of which were held by blacks. Since then, the Caucus has been totally ineffectual in stopping Congress from lopping off billions in funds for social programs.
The Caucus is squeezed hard by a politically resurgent Bush who has repeatedly refused to meet with the Caucus and has yielded not one inch to its traditional demands for greater funding for social, education and HIV/AIDS treatment programs, drug law reform, and the elimination of disastrous racial disparities in the criminal justice system. The Caucus is also been straight-jacketed by the Supreme court ruling that tossed out racial redistricting, which some say played a big role in the recent defeats of outspoken Caucus members Alabama representative, Earl Hilliard and Georgia representative, Cynthia McKinney; the continuing conservative assault on affirmative action and social programs; a weak, and vacillating Democratic party leadership; and the war on terrorism that has pushed the issues of race and poverty to the political backburner.
But blaming the Caucus's political slide on an obstructionist Bush, the terror fight, and adverse court decisions is too easy. A big contributor to the Caucus's sink to political invisibility is the disappearance of large numbers of blacks from the voting booths, and even more ominous for black Democrats, the increasing disgust of blacks with the Democratic party. For the first time in nearly a half century, as many blacks as not have said that they like a Republican president, and that president is Bush. A recent poll by Black America's Political Action Committee, a Washington D.C. based political think tank, found that nearly 40 percent of blacks say that Bush is doing a good job. Nearly forty percent of blacks reviled the Democrats for taking them for granted.
The Caucus's brand of quiet diplomacy in Congress has further contributed to its vanishing act. For the most part it relies on a select group of scholars and experts to develop reports and position papers on issues. There appears to be little or no effort to inform the black public and involve community activists in its political actions. They are left almost completely in the dark on how their efforts translate into legislation that directly impacts on black communities. In the absence of this feedback and involvement, the impression is that the Caucus leaders spend much if not the bulk of their time and resources to the narrow and self-preserving task of electing more black Democrats to office, and making sure that those already there stay there, i.e. themselves.
Many black politicians dread being called elitist. They, like every other politician breathing, solemnly swear that they listen to what the people say and act on what they want. They tell themselves and the public that everything they do is done on behalf of their constituents. It is. And it is not. There is a considerable amount of good legislation they propose and even occasionally get passed that deal with problems and needs of poor and working class blacks.
But this does not alter the fact that the American political system is a self-protective, clubby, and chummy ball game in which politicians spend most of their time with each other. As consummate political insiders they spend most of their time with each other. This under-girds their self-assigned role as experts in and arbiters of the inner craft of American politics. They are accustomed to the unchallenged and unquestioned brandishing of power. They jealously hoard what they view as their sacred right to make all final decisions on proposing laws and supporting public policy they deem important. More often than not those laws and policies boost middle-class blacks and corporate special interests rather than poor and working-class blacks.
The Congressional Black Caucus is in a political fight for its life. It must figure out a way make friends of more Republicans, (and that includes Bush,) keep the support of Democratic leaders, and politically energize blacks. It's asking a lot, but it's the only way it can stop its vanishing act.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is the author of The Crisis in Black and Black.email: email@example.com.