The accelerating slide into irrelevance of the Congressional Black Caucus can only be halted by a revolt of the progressive majority. Given the infestation of corporate-bought Members, the long term health of the CBC will, of course, depend on the political reawakening of the Black electorate, many of whom are represented by legislators that consistently vote against their interests. In the interim, we at the CBC Monitor offer a last-ditch proposal that will at least allow the progressive majority of the Caucus to express its collective political will – to demonstrate that most of the CBC remains true to its motto, “the conscience of the congress.”
For most of the first three decades of its existence, the Congressional Black Caucus functioned quite well on the basis of unanimity or near-unanimity. There was little difficulty in getting the Caucus as a body to endorse progressive legislation, including bills that were not strictly “civil rights” related. With a few exceptions, Members were as consistently progressive as the voters that elected them.
All that changed around the turn of the Millennium. Corporate America and its rightwing think tanks finally resigned themselves to the fact that Black Republicanism was an electoral dead end. Although white districts occasionally voted for Black Republicans, not a single Black GOPer had held a congressional seat from a majority Black district since 1935. It was clear that the only way to influence African American congressional politics was to subvert Black Democrats – with cash.
The result was an influx of new, corporate-oriented Members into the CBC – Artur Davis (AL), Denise Majette (GA), David Scott (GA) – and a dramatic rightwing swing on key issues among more senior members of the Caucus: Harold Ford (TN), Albert Wynn (MD), William Jefferson (LA), Sanford Bishop (GA), Gregory Meeks (NY).
By April, 2005, the CBC was in ruins. Ten of the 42 Members voted for the finance industry’s Bankruptcy bill, eight for the Republican’s Estate Tax abolition legislation, and eleven for the energy industry’s special interest bill. Although these Black defectors to the right wing represented only a quarter or less of the Caucus, their determination to stand with moneyed interests effectively neutered the CBC as a progressive force in the U.S. House of Representatives. Since there was no longer a progressive consensus, the Caucus could take no position on what we at CBC Monitor call “bright line” issues – the bread and butter, peace and war questions that shape the lives of all Americans, but which impact African Americans most intensely.
The collapse of the Caucus in 2005 prompted us to create the CBC Monitor, to alert the electorate to the subversive corporate forces that were mutilating national Black politics. Our bi-annual Report Card rates congresspersons on the “bright line” issues that matter most to the well-being of Black people – issues that CBC Chairman Mel Watt refuses to recognize as “Black issues” because to do so would collide with the voting behavior of the corporate-bought minority in the Caucus.
Mel Watt’s (NC) ascension to CBC Chairman made a bad situation worse. Acting more as the Black “Whip” for Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi than as a facilitator of Black influence on Capitol Hill, Watt has relentlessly sought to quash all Black deviation from the party line. Since Democratic leadership is intent on saying and doing nothing that could draw media attention away from assorted Republican failures and corruption, Watt has played the role of “silencer” of the CBC. Most viciously, he has attempted to isolate and humiliate the CBC’s most outspoken member, Cynthia McKinney (GA). Worse than being Pelosi’s poodle, Watt acts like a pit bull – when the target is a Black woman.
In a final irony, Watt this month bent over deeply to satisfy Pelosi’s desire that extension of the Voting Rights Act not be seen as a “racial” issue. Watt agreed to scrub the names of about half of the Black Caucus from co-sponsorship of the VRA extension bill – while leaving his own name to stand in for the rest of the CBC. The Caucus, which we had thought could sink no lower than its April 2005 defections to the Right and cowardly failure to stand by its besieged sister, Cynthia McKinney, was now instructed to withdraw from a quintessentially and historically “Black” piece of legislation.
Not only must the CBC abstain from taking a position on “non-Black” issues, it is prohibited from assuming too high a profile on legislation that is undeniably “Black.” Poof! The CBC is made to disappear.
Sense of the Caucus
The hour is late, but the CBC can still rescue itself and Black people’s honor. We at CBC Monitor respectfully urge the progressive majority of the Caucus to institute a “sense of the caucus” process, to prevent the majority from being effectively silenced by the now-hopeless “unanimity” tradition or the whims of the Chair. The U.S. House and Senate regularly employ “sense of the congress” resolutions to express the political will of the majority. Like the congressional resolutions, the “sense of the caucus” votes would be non-binding, but a powerful statement of the prevailing opinion among Black federal lawmakers.
What is good enough for the House and Senate is good enough for the Congressional Black Caucus. We are certain that the progressive majority of the CBC is frustrated at being made to remain mute, as a body, by the corrupt leanings of a distinct minority of Members. Caucus “unanimity” has been transformed into a mechanism that silences the authentic voices of the Black body politic at the federal level, while conveying immunity to the minority of bought Members. This cannot stand, if the CBC is to retain any credibility in the Black community at-large.
The rules of the Caucus are for the Members to make. We at CBC Monitor are not so presumptuous as to prescribe a formula for “sense of the caucus” resolutions – whether a vote can be called for by one member or ten at Caucus meetings, or a resolution passed by a simple majority or, say, seventy percent. What is profoundly important is that the large majority of CBC Members be empowered to signal to African Americans and the larger society, where they stand on vital issues.
We are equally sure that “sense of the caucus” resolutions will have a salutary effect on those wavering Black congresspersons who, seeing the “derelicts” of the Caucus get away with voting their pocketbooks instead of their constituents’ interests, are tempted to go with the money flow. It is time to draw lines, and abandon the farce of a Black Caucus that is unanimous in – nothing. The people deserve to know where the majority of their legislators stand on the issues, and which Black lawmakers side with the money bags.
“Sense of the caucus” resolutions would also have surely prevented Mel Watt from continually imposing Nancy Pelosi’s will on the CBC. The Black Caucus does not need a “Whip” – it needs a voice. Only then will the slogan, “conscience of the congress” once again have meaning.
Leutisha Stills can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The CBC Monitor's website is cbcmonitor.voxunion.com.