The Congressional Black Caucus is positioned to dramatically increase its clout next Congress if Democrats win control of the House.
The 43-member group, already one of the most powerful blocs among House Democrats, would control as many as five committee gavels in a Democratic House, including two exclusive panels, Ways and Means and Judiciary. Members of the group also would lead 15 subcommittees, six of them on exclusive panels. And Caucus Chairman Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) would be a contender for majority whip.
Although it is not the largest group in the Democratic caucus – the 64-member Progressive Caucus holds that title – the Congressional Black Caucus is perhaps the most cohesive and the most vocal, bound together by racial identity, shared experience and in many instances, similar districts. This year and in the past, members of the group have demonstrated that they are more than willing to challenge Democratic leaders when one of their own comes under fire.
Earlier this year, many in the CBC, including Chairman Mel Watt (D-N.C.), vociferously defended Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.) when Democratic leaders moved to oust him from the Ways and Means Committee.
They also went to bat for Jefferson when House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) passed him over for chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) in 2003.
Even when Pelosi merely threatened Rep. Ed Towns (D-N.Y.) with losing his Energy and Commerce Committee position after he missed several key budget votes and voted against the Central American Free Trade Agreement, the New Yorker’s CBC colleagues spoke out on his behalf, questioning whether a leader could exact such a punishment without warning.
“Every time leadership considers taking action against anyone in the CBC, they have to think about whether they want to take on the whole CBC,” said one Democratic aide.
In a Democratically-controlled House, with the stakes higher on all fronts, the Black Caucus would likely be an even more cantankerous force with which to reckon.
Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), founder of the Out of Iraq Caucus, which now boasts more than 70 members, would likely gain more sway if Democrats win back the House and then are forced to hash out their collective position on Iraq.
Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) would chair the Ways and Means Committee, Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) the Homeland Security Committee, and Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald (D-Calif.) would become the informal mayor of the House as chairman of the Administration Committee. Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.) may bump Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) as the senior member on the Intelligence Committee due to tension between her and Pelosi.
“If you have the gavel, it means something. You have the opportunity not just to vote on policy but write policy,” said an aide to a CBC member.
On the business front, the CBC would be poised to marshal the backing of K Street to boost its legislative agenda. Even in the minority, the CBC was able to attract large companies to help ensure the renewal of the Voting Rights Act (VRA). More than 10 corporate chief executives wrote House and Senate leaders encouraging quick passage, as did one large business group, the Business Roundtable.
Several CBC sources suggested that using lobbyists to push legislation, a model pioneered by House Republicans, would become a part of the CBC’s playbook after the VRA success.
The Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, the CBC’s charitable arm, also has benefited from business interests. Led by ambitious young Rep. Kendrick Meek (D-Fla.), it raked in a $1 million donation from Wal-Mart earlier this summer.
On the political front, the CBC has been a perennial thorn in the side of the DCCC, charging that the political group fails to devote sufficient manpower to minority issues and voter turnout, a claim the DCCC disputes. The group’s concerns have been so great that earlier this year Pelosi had to step in to mediate between the Black Caucus and DCCC Chairman Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.). Pelosi, Emanuel and half a dozen CBC members have met several times to smooth over the tension, most recently on July 26.
Clyburn has privately criticized Emanuel’s strategy, raising concerns that he is spending too much on advertising and not enough to turn out voters on Election Day.
“I told everyone in the Democratic Caucus, you have to have things like yard signs. People look to see how their neighbors are voting,” Clyburn told The Hill.
Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.) defended the committee.
“The DCCC is going to make the commitment in terms of resources. No one should think otherwise.”
With doubts about Emanuel, Clyburn has begun to reach out to Democratic National Committee (DNC) Chairman Howard Dean to discuss voter organizing, a senior Democratic aide said.
Emanuel and Dean have been at odds over the DNC’s 50-State strategy, a long-term plan to organize Democrats in every state regardless of whether the state tends to vote for Democrats. Emanuel, Pelosi and many other House Democrats would prefer that the DNC devote more resources to winning competitive congressional elections this year.
But Clyburn said he saw the DNC’s effort as complementary to what House Democrats are doing.
“We have about 50 congressional districts the DCCC has targeted and I believe that every one of those are within the DNC’s 50-State program. I do not believe that what he is doing should be looked at as exclusive. It should be looked at as exclusive.”
One Democratic source suggested that Clyburn was cozying up to Dean as he eyes a potential bid for majority whip.