The Congressional Black Caucus, the Committee System and the President
Participants: Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), chairwoman, Congressional Black Caucus; George A. Dalley, chief of staff to Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.); Katrina Gamble, assistant professor of political science, Brown University; and Perry Bacon, staff writer, The Washington Post
"The Congressional Black Caucus is as relevant today as it was when it was first organized back in 1971," said Congresswoman Barbara Lee, the new chairwoman of the Caucus. "What we have to determine now is how to move our people and make them a part of the democratic process as President-elect Obama called for during the campaign."
Addressing a seminar cosponsored by the Congress Project and the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation on January 12, Lee said Obama's election as the first African-American president "provides us a unique opportunity to enact legislation to fill the moral gaps in our society. We have to be bold in addressing the issues he has raised – from foreclosures and jobs to health care and education." Lee said that while much of the discussion during the campaign was on the plight of the middle class, "we must also confront the problems of poverty head-on," particularly the problem of joblessness among those who have historically not held a job.
George Dalley, chief-of-staff to Congressman Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), said the current financial and economic crises afford us an opportunity to move this nation on a number of fronts simultaneously, including housing, infrastructure, and creating new jobs. "The economic crisis has had a disproportionate effect on people of color who were already far behind." Any stimulus package should be targeted to those in greatest need. Dalley said President-elect Obama will be good for the black community as he tackles the economic challenges he has inherited, but we should not expect a radical transformation of our society. Dalley said many people have unrealistic expectations of what the new president can do, and he has wisely tamped these down and cautioned us that things could get worse before the start to get better and not to expect change to happen overnight.
Katrina Gamble, an assistant professor at Brown University, summarized a paper she had prepared for the seminar, "Incorporation and Representation: Congressional Black Caucus Leadership in the Committee System." She noted that when the Caucus was first formed there were just nine African Americans in Congress and none were given important committee assignments. Today there are 41 blacks in the House of Representatives, and they hold five committee chairmanships (including Ways and Means, Judiciary, Homeland Security, and Oversight and Government Reform), as well as 15 subcommittee chairmanships. Gamble said her research indicates that the Black Caucus members have often been more active than their white colleagues on committees in participating in deliberations, both in debate and offering amendments. Moreover, they bring unique perspectives that have helped frame important debates in different ways. While many feared the Black Caucus might lose its edge as more Members moved into party and committee leadership positions, that has not been the case. "They are still addressing the same needs of disadvantaged blacks and others, but have a greater voice in the solutions than they once did."
Perry Bacon, a political reporter with The Washington Post, noted that the Black Caucus has already asserted itself and made a difference in the new Congress by weighing in unanimously with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in favor of seating former Illinois Attorney General Roland Burris in the U.S. Senate. Bacon had just received word that Reid had reversed his earlier refusal to seat Burris and announced the Senate would do so later in the week. Bacon said it can be expected that there will be differences from time to time between the new President and Black Caucus members, just as there will be between the two branches generally. But there will be more of a tendency to give the president the benefit of the doubt. Bacon added that with a Black Caucus member taking over the House Oversight committee, it will be interesting to see how much scrutiny there will be of the new Administration versus the past Administration. Both the Oversight and Judiciary committees have unfinished investigations from the Bush presidency that they have been authorized to complete. At the same time, Preident-elect Obama had indicated that he is less interested in dwelling on past wrongs than he is in grappling with current challenges and facing the future.