How to demand accountability on the part of elected
officials? It sounds noble enough to the point that many politicians
campaign on a platform that promises they will be held accountable
by the people who vote for them. Oftentimes, it is just a politically
correct word, used to appease the anger of the American public
long enough until their attention is distracted by something
else more newsworthy. When I relocated to the nation's capitol,
I intended to seek out elected officials and ask the question,
"Why did they run for public office?" and analyze
the responses I thought I would receive. Then, I met a group
of politically active professionals, from all walks of life,
and of different political affiliations, who had grown alarmed
at the representation coming from the Congressional Black Caucus.
I met them while having coffee at Café Mawonaj, a local coffee
shop frequented by students of Howard University.
While sitting among them, I listened to what had
them so upset with elected members of the House of Representatives;
most notably, the members of the Congressional Black Caucus.
As I listened to the dialogue, it became apparent that what
had the group upset with the members of the Congressional Black
Caucus was the growing trend of at least 25% of the Caucus members
who consistently voted against a progressive legislative agenda
that would be beneficial to the poor and working class, without
fear of reprisal or discipline for breaking party lines, from
both the leadership of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC),
or from Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. This group, known as
the CBC Monitor Group, decided that some definitive action needed
to be taken, and quickly, in order to send a message to the
CBC that the dereliction in their representation of poor communities,
would no longer go unheeded.
I asked the group how they planned to go about
getting the attention of the CBC. The group's founder, Niyi
Shomade, responded that "the CBC, especially those who
keep crossing party lines, need to be held accountable for their
performance as legislators."
Mr. Shomade listed a group of bills that passed
in the Congress with the assistance of the seven to ten members
of the CBC who voted in favor of the legislation.
I was invited to join CBC Monitor and accepted
by offering to explore and develop a methodology that would
put the voting records of the CBC members on public display
and then implement a monitoring process to evaluate if the methodology
was effective in getting CBC members to pay attention to the
constituents they represented.
We decided that the amount of members of the CBC
(42 House Members and 1 Senator) would be a large enough sample
to examine their voting records and be able to manage the information
provided to be placed in a comprehensive and brief public report.
Developing the Methodology
At the next meeting of the CBC Monitor, I suggested
to the members that whatever methodology we used, the data collected
for analysis and evaluation would have to be based solely on
the voting record of the CBC member, and something other than
the CBC's agenda, which usually pertained
to Civil Rights and Voting Rights issues. My argument
was not to focus on those issues because the NAACP evaluated
the CBC members on their legislative records as pertaining to
Civil Rights, and all members, even those considered "derelict"
received grades of "A+" at least, so their evaluation
excluded more mainstream issues that would still have serious
impacts for African-American communities, such as education,
environment, judicial, housing, public health, etc.
Our next step was to look at the legislation that
had major significance in the past two years, on which the group
believed the CBC ignored the voices of the African-American
community. We narrowed down our list to include legislation
that we considered "bright-line" issues (read: these
were issues that any CBC member familiar with his or her district,
would not have voted for because they knew the impact that the
passage of such legislation would have on their districts).
The following legislation came up for consideration on the floor
of the House, beginning in October 2004 to September 2005:
Iraq War Authorization
Bankruptcy Reform Bill
Gang Deterrence Bill
Watt Amendment to the Federal Budget
Class Action (Tort Reform) Legislation
Estate Tax Repeal Legislation
REAL ID Act (Voting Rights)
Energy Bill/Capps Amendment
Next, we decided we would gather the voting records
of all 42 House Members and the lone Senator, Barack Obama (D-Illinois),
and make accurate determinations of how they voted for the legislation
we selected. We selected these bills based upon the economic,
educational, environmental, mainstream effects they would have
upon poor communities, especially African-American communities.
Many of the lawmakers represent districts with better than 50%
African-Americans residing in their districts, and since the
purpose of the Congressional Black Caucus was to make sure,
"to promote the public welfare through legislation designed
to meet the needs of millions of neglected citizens,"
our group began to wonder how the Caucus was doing that, when
it was discovered that voting for the above listed legislation
did the exact opposite. We rationalized that a CBC Member
who listened to its' constituency, would vote in accordance
with the needs and best representation of said constituency.
We also rationalized that a CBC Member would be "in touch"
with the African-American Polity in terms of how they cast their
votes on the floor of the House.
I asked the group if we could use a "grading
format" by assimilating all of the votes and assigning
a point value for each piece of legislation voted on. We decided
to start each member with 100% point value, and the point value
would decrease or remain the same, depending on how they voted
for each piece of legislation.
Since I was tasked to come up with a point value
of all nine pieces of legislation to add up to 100%, I asked
the group to assign the point value for each piece of legislation,
and to assign the point value weight based upon the significance
of the legislation. Total points remaining would assign the
lawmaker a letter grade, based on the grading scale of A-F (90%
- 100% earned an "A"; anything below 60% received
a grade of "F"). All of the legislation was considered
very significant, but some legislation was considered to have
more immediate and egregious effects on the African-American
community than others. Therefore, with a unanimous consensus,
we came up with the point values assigned as follows:
While we believed the Watt Amendment to the Federal
Budget was important, given the demographics of the 109th
Congress (read: Republican Majority), it was assumed that Congressman
Watt's amendment would not get fair consideration because it
called for more funding to social programs that were earmarked
for reduction by the then current budget proposal.
We also decided that members who were absent from
voting, or present, but abstained from voting on these issues,
would also lose points. After all, the Representative is, by
our vote, expected to speak for his or her constituency with
their legislative vote, and unless the member had a seriously
important reason for their absence, (i.e. illness - their own,
or a family member, or death in the family) being absent for
reasons such as off campaigning for higher office, or attending
fund-raisers, did not merit being absent from the Floor of the
House on such important legislation.
Gathering the Data
We assigned a team of two people to access Internet
resources of Congressional voting records. The most accurate
were the ones found at Congress.org
Politics.org. These two websites codified the voting information
by Congressional Caucuses per piece of legislation. From that,
we were able to produce the following chart for each member
of the CBC (I am displaying one for review as an example of
how we compiled the votes, the weighted values of each vote
and cumulative score):
As the reader can see, this process became a voluminous
process for all 43 CBC members that we were unwilling to present
to the public until we could streamline or summarize the evaluations
and grading charts. Additionally, we were on a deadline to
produce the evaluation, named the "CBC
Report Card,: in time for the opening day of the CBC's Annual
Legislative Conference, which was held in late September 2005.
The reader may be wondering how we evaluated Senator
Obama's voting record, given that he is a United States Senator,
and not a House Member. It was decided on consensus vote to
evaluate him on a higher standard because he sits in a higher
level of the Congress, and has responsibility to not only vote
on legislative issues, but he is responsible for voting on matters
of job placement within the Executive or Judiciary level that
requires Senate confirmation. Furthermore, Senator Obama is
expected to vote to ratify legislation that would have to be
exactly as legislation produced in the House of Representatives,
and for those reasons, it was decided his point values would
double, because not all the legislation we selected has been
debated or passed in the Senate as of this date. So, the point
value on legislation that had passed the House, but needed Senate
Ratification, was assigned a double point value to Senator Obama.
At the time of our analysis, only one piece of legislation,
the Tort Reform Bill, was voted upon in the Senate, and Senator
Obama was rated accordingly.
The purpose of the evaluation and report card
was to highlight the areas where we believed the African-American
members of Congress were failing in terms of providing effective
representation of their districts. We also wanted to send the
message that from this point on, they would be monitored as
to how well they would represent the interests of African-American
communities that voted them in office, and eliminate any excuse
these lawmakers would provide if they were ever challenged on
their voting records.
Publishing the Results
Our group decided that the best time to publish
the results and grades of our analysis of the CBC Members' voting
records would be during the Congressional Black Caucus Annual
Legislative Conference (ALC), where all the members would be
present, and we could obtain feedback from people who attend
the conference by conducting a poll of the attendees to the
Actual Report Card. Our "Report Card" was published
in the online Magazine, "The Black Commentator" and
was picked up in several news outlets, such as the Commercial
Appeal, the Memphis Flyer, The Hill (Congressional Newspaper),
Roll Call (Congressional Newspaper) and popular onsite web logs,
such as Atrios, DailyKos and The News Blog (Steve Gillard).
The following is the Report Card itself:
The weighted score and overall grades were determined
by analysis of individual voting records regarding the following
legislative issues that directly have egregious effects on the
African-American communities and the districts the Congressional
Estate Tax Bill
Gang Deterrence Bill
REAL ID Act
Iraq Authorization (2004)
Watt Amendment (Federal Budget)
Class Action Bill
Energy Bill & Capps Amendment
* denotes non-voting delegate
Our group deliberately refrained from analyzing
other factors that may have influenced the votes of the lawmakers,
such as campaign contributions, aspirations for higher office,
affiliations, etc., because we believed those factors were subjective
in nature and should be absent of the lawmaker's obligation
as an elected representative. We agreed to publish commentaries
regarding the lawmakers' affiliations, campaign contributions,
and other outside lobbying influences to educate the average
voter in future elections, beginning in 2006.
On the opening day of the ALC, there was a "Town
Hall" meeting that featured Senator Obama, Senator Hillary
Rodham Clinton, Harry Belafonte, Dr. Ben Carson, and other notables.
This was one opportunity to distribute hard copies of the Report
Card to people attending the Conference, as well as any CBC
Member we encountered during the four-day conference. We reproduced
and distributed 300 copies of the Report Card, and a team of
four individuals attending the conference were given 75 copies
of the Report Card for distribution. Each team member was instructed
to ask the following questions when passing out the report card,
and allowing the individual to read the report card:
What do you think of the Report Card?
How often should it be done?
Is your Representative on this List? How do
you feel about their grade?
Any suggestions for improvements on the report
We polled an average of 30 people each, who read
the Report Card (120 people total). 98% of the people polled
thought the Report Card was a good idea towards facilitating
accountability, and 75% of those polled stated they would be
taking the Report Card to their Representative and informing
them that they felt empowered in terms of deciding how they
would be voting in 2006. Seventy percent asked that we publish
the Report Card more than once a year, and at least 65% of the
people polled stated they had Representatives who were CBC Members.
Of the 65%, nearly half said that their lawmakers were rated
"Under Achiever" or "Derelict," and stated
that the Report Card confirmed their suspicions that these lawmakers
were not representing their best interests as their elected
We also managed to get the Report Card into the
hands of ten CBC members (who confirmed that all 43 members
either learned about their grades because they read The Black
Commentator, or they received a phone call from a media outlet
who picked up the Cover Story from The Black Commentator (the
CBC Members listed as "Derelict" complained to the
CBC Chairman, Rep. Mel Watt). Of the ten CBC Members we spoke
to regarding the Report Card, 70% said they welcomed the scrutiny,
even though it made them uncomfortable. They stated they knew
that being scrutinized was part of being an elected official,
and that their employers were the people who voted for them.
Additionally, the 70% stated that having such scrutiny of themselves
and their "wayward" colleagues would be helpful in
achieving consensus or unanimity on issues such as the Bankruptcy
Bill or CAFTA. Thirty percent said they should have been given
a "warning" that the Report Card was going to be published,
because they felt they were "blindsided" by the publication,
and were not ready to respond to their grades.
I gave a copy of the Report Card to CBC Chairman
Mel Watt, and his response to it is provided below:
…Mel Watt, the CBC chief, saw Leutisha Stills
sitting at his table during CBC weekend, speaking on her cell
phone. What followed was an amazing encounter that speaks volumes.
Watt didn't know that Stills had been circulating the CBC Monitor.
He approached her. Leutisha Stills reports that "the conversation
started pleasantly enough, but took a nasty turn when the Report
Card was mentioned.
The Black Commentator stated the following from
the same article:
…The Congressional Black Caucus doesn't want
to be reported on. Watt went off. At that moment, Niyi Shomade,
a CBC Monitor founder arrived, to confront the congressman.
Watt dismissed the criticism of the CBC as "name-calling"
by "you damned bloggers." He "went on,"
according to Stills, to "a rant about how our group was
no better than the white media in exposing the fractures within
The Black Commentator article concluded with the
The point that Mel Watt appears to be trying
to make is that Black folks shouldn't criticize Black leadership.
Otherwise, we are helping white folks. This is ridiculous, and
denies us our right to democratic action. We became citizens,
finally, in the Sixties. No Black man is going to extinguish
that. Not even Mel Watt…
Additionally, Representative Watt informed me
that the member rated as "Derelict" should not have
been given the ratings they were given, because one was aspiring
for higher office (Harold Ford, Jr.) and another's district
(Albert Wynn) would not be as affected by the bankruptcy legislation
as perceived. He told me these lawmakers had to play to their
base, and that our Report Card was "unfair" because
we should have based our grades on the CBC's Agenda:
The Congressional Black Caucus agenda for the
Closing disparities and creating opportunity
Closing the achievement and opportunity gaps
Assuring quality health care for every American
Focusing on employment care for every American
Wealth and business development
Ensuring equality for all
Upon initial reading of this agenda, we felt the
language was vague and indefinable, and we decided to select
legislation that would be more direct and articulate, plus it
would be defined in the terms of effective representation of
their districts, based upon statistical data on an economic,
educational, health or environmental scale. Examinations of
the CBC's Agenda and compare it to the legislation we selected,
demonstrated that Rep. Watt's reaction to the Report Card doesn't
have a concrete basis, but suggests an underlying motive, or
hidden political agendas regarding certain CBC Members:
Additional Methodologies, Research and
Our group has no agenda other than facilitating
accountability on the part of African-American Congressional
Representatives. We were not sure what the results would be
when we published the CBC Report Card. Certainly, we did not
expect the hostile reaction that came from almost 30% of the
Caucus; nor did we expect that the lawmakers believed they were
free from criticism of their performance as lawmakers from other
African-Americans. For many days after the publishing of the
Report Card, fielding several calls from other political grassroots
organizations as to how they could employ a similar methodology,
as well as dealing with the hostile reaction from CBC Members
(understandably, those who received mediocre to failing grades),
we decided that we would do some research that would (a) create
additional methodologies for evaluating and assessing the performance
of elected officials, and (b) understand the reactions from
the elected officials to being evaluated.
Every elected official we've seen campaigning
has always said that their performance as an elected official
is verified by the fact that the voters continue to vote for
them, and that their re-election to their positions can be considered
a "mandate by the voters." This appears simplistic
in nature, but I began to ponder upon the fact that voters aren't
often as educated on the political issues as those of us who
work in political think tanks, or for political organizations.
The CBC Monitor's website is cbcmonitor.voxunion.com
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