Black lawmakers are likely to lead key committees in the new, Democrat-led House, and that means issues such as Hurricane Katrina relief, hate crimes and voting problems are likely to get much more attention.
“Within the Congress, their influence went from about a one to a nine,” said David Bositis, who analyzes black politics for the Joint Center for Economic Studies in Washington. “This is by far the peak — ever — for the Congressional Black Caucus.” Members of the group may head as many as five prominent House committees and 17 subcommittees.
With the Democratic majorities slim in the House and slimmer in the Senate, National Urban League President Marc H. Morial cautioned that turning talk into legislation will be tough. And Bositis noted that President Bush “can veto whatever the Democrats do.”
Still, Vanderbilt University political scientist Carol M. Swain said, “it is historic.” Black representatives “certainly have more potential power.”
The 43 black members of Congress, all of whom are Democrats, include some of the longest-tenured representatives. Because committee leaders traditionally are chosen according to seniority, black members are expected to play important roles.
Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina was selected last week to be majority whip, the No. 3 post in the House. He is the second black lawmaker in history to hold the seat, which lines up votes on legislation.
Names to watch: Conyers, Rangel, Thompson
Likely committee chair appointments include John Conyers of Michigan to the Judiciary, New York’s Charlie Rangel to Ways and Means, Bennie Thompson of Mississippi to Homeland Security and Juanita Millender-McDonald of California to House Administration, which oversees federal elections.
By seniority, California Rep. Jane Harman should lead the Intelligence Committee, but House Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi has told Harman she won’t be reappointed to the committee.
Alcee Hastings, a black Florida congressman, is the next senior Democrat. He would be a controversial choice, however. A former federal judge, he was charged in an FBI bribery sting and was acquitted by a federal jury. He was later impeached by the House and removed from the bench in 1989 by the Senate.
“These are committees that have great influence on the concerns of the African-American community,” said Hilary O. Shelton, who heads the Washington bureau of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. “Committees like the Judiciary, which could touch on hate crimes, civil rights enforcement and voting rights enforcement ... we couldn’t ask for a chair that better represents the challenges in the Judiciary committee and civil rights than John Conyers.”
Among likely policy goals:
- Increasing the federal minimum wage. More than half the states now mandate wages higher than the $5.15 per hour minimum, and Democrats are expected to try to make those pay raises national.
- Reviving a stalled Hurricane Katrina recovery bill to help New Orleans and Mississippi rebuild following last year’s disaster.
- Working to close racial gaps in health care, especially on HIV/AIDS, which hits black communities hard.
- Probing reports that voters, especially in black neighborhoods, have faced intimidation, faulty machines and other barriers to voting in recent elections.
“I think it’s going to take probably six months for not just the black members of Congress, for all the committee leadership and House leadership to decide what they’re going to do,” Bositis said. “There will be too much to do, and not enough time to do it.”
More diversity expected
The increased influence of black lawmakers may also bring more racial diversity to the staff of congressional committees. Black caucus chair Rep. Mel Watt of North Carolina sent a letter last week to Democratic party leadership urging them to include minorities in the staff applicant pool to give “a broad section of people opportunities for input.”
But, he stressed, the new black committee chairs will mainly be “representing the Democratic Party,” not just black people.
“They are not chairs because they are CBC members,” Watt said. “They will be chairs because they have substantial time in Congress, experience in Congress and knowledge of the issues.”