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
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
By April, 2005, the CBC was in ruins. Ten of the 42
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
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
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
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 [email protected].
The CBC Monitor's website is cbcmonitor.voxunion.com.