House Dems: Put Up or Shut Up on Congressional Black Caucus

A jubilant soon-to-be House Speaker Nancy Pelosi pledged that the House Democrats would take government in a new direction. She can, and should, start with the Congressional Black Caucus. It desperately needs a shot in the arm. The Caucus has all but vanished from Congress and the national scene as a visible, fighting force for change. The blame for that, in part, can be dumped on the doorsteps of the Democrats, and that includes House Democrats, and in part on the divisions, deals making penchant, and corruption scandals that have embroiled some Caucus members.

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 District of Columbia committees, which had sizable numbers of black members, and reduced the size of all standing committees. This cost blacks seats on several important policymaking 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 was squeezed hard by a politically resurgent Bush who repeatedly refused to meet with the Caucus and yield 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. A weak, and vacillating Democratic Party leadership and the war on terrorism that pushed the issues of race and poverty to the political backburner also hampered the Caucus. That forced the Caucus to retreat and regroup, and at times play the go along to get along role in taking questionable stands, and some charged deal making with industry groups, on everything from media consolidation to social security reform.

Then there were the scandals and the negative publicity. Two Caucus members had the dubious distinction of being named to the list of the top 20 most corrupt members of Congress by a private citizens watchdog group. One of who was scandal plagued Louisiana Democrat William Jefferson. No white Democrat made the list. The rest on the list fittingly enough were Republicans.

Another 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.

But now that House Democrats are in command, it's put up or shut up time. They can move quickly to insure that the CBC's ranking members take over the powerful Judiciary, Ways and Means, and Intelligence committees, as well as another half-dozen or more key subcommittees.

The takeover of these committees and subcommittees is more than simply a reward for their longevity in the House and their loyal service to the Democratic Party. It's recognition of a hard political fact that top Democrats have hated or feared admitting. And that's that for the past half blacks are the most loyal of Democrat shock troops.

In every election stretching back to Lyndon Johnson's landslide victory in 1964, they have given the Democrats more than 80 percent of their vote. Even as an increasing number of Latino, and Asian voters and trade unionists defected to the Republicans, blacks stood pat with the Democrats. The midterm elections proved that again. A slew of big-gun, high-profile black Republicans in Ohio, Maryland and Pennsylvania pitched hard for black votes to defect from the Democrats. In Maryland, for instance, many thought that seasoned and well-bankrolled Republican pro, Lt. Gov. Michael Steele had a fair shot of beating the odds and becoming the first black Republican senator in a top-heavy Democratic state. Steele wooed, courted and implored black voters to break ranks with the Democrats. The appeal crashed hard on black's rock solid loyalty to the Democrats. His white Democratic opponent got nearly three-quarters of the black vote.

Even without public anger over the Iraq war, Republican sex and corruption scandals, the loathing of Bush's policies and Bush by most blacks, and the railing of many blacks at the Democrats for plantationism, a vote for the GOP was simply not an option. They'd stay home before they did that.

Thanks to the mean-spirited, arrogance and callousness of the House Republicans and bumbling policies of a clueless Republican president, Democrats are now firmly in the driver's seat in the House. Their big task is to make sure that the CBC shares the driver's seat with them. Once they're firmly in that seat, they must come out swinging for an increased minimum wage, expanded health care for the uninsured, protection of pensions, nonpunitive immigration reform, and increased funding for job and education programs. If they don't, the grumbles that the Democrats, whether in power or not, take black voters, even their own black Democrats for granted, will get even louder.

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