Black Caucus sees power grow with new Democratic majority

Black Caucus sees power grow with new Democratic majority
© Greg Nash

The Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) is set to hold unprecedented influence after a House GOP majority in which not a single African-American chaired a committee.

Five members of the CBC are leading committees in the newly empowered Democratic majority. And two CBC members, Majority Whip James Clyburn (S.C.) and Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem JeffriesHakeem Sekou JeffriesBlack Caucus sees power grow with new Democratic majority New Dem caucus chairman: Some wall is good, but not new wall Jeffries drops Naughty by Nature reference in nominating Pelosi MORE (N.Y.), are in the top rungs of the House Democratic leadership.

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Those prominent perches are only part of the influence the CBC wields in the Democratic caucus.

The CBC now comprises a record 55 members, which includes two nonvoting delegates and Sens. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerWe need action on personal cybersecurity Gillibrand and Booker play 'How Well Do You Know Your Co-Worker' game amid 2020 speculation The Hill's Morning Report — Trump’s attorney general pick passes first test MORE (D-N.J.) and Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisOcasio-Cortez's first House floor speech becomes C-SPAN's most-viewed Twitter video Kamala Harris says her New Year's resolution is to 'cook more' Harris to oppose Trump's attorney general nominee MORE (D-Calif.). That’s up from the previous record of 49, from the last Congress.

Rep. Elijah CummingsElijah Eugene CummingsOvernight Health Care: Dem chair plans hearing on Medicare for all | Senate GOP talks drug prices with Trump health chief | PhRMA CEO hopeful Trump reverses course on controversial pricing proposal Key House Dem: I don't want to 'punish' drug companies House Dems fire first salvo in drug pricing fight MORE (D-Md.) will be the face of what’s expected to be a barrage of investigations into the Trump administration as chairman of the Oversight and Reform Committee. Rep. Bennie ThompsonBennie Gordon ThompsonLast-minute deal extends program to protect chemical plants Trump’s polls sag amid wall fight TSA reports twice the normal rate of security officers calling in sick MORE (D-Miss.) will oversee immigration, election security and counterterrorism issues atop the Homeland Security Committee, while Rep. Bobby ScottRobert (Bobby) Cortez ScottDems offer measure to raise minimum wage to per hour Hopes fade for bipartisan bills in age of confrontation House Dems to introduce minimum wage bill MORE (D-Va.) will chair the Education and Labor Committee with authority over college affordability, the minimum wage and child care policies.

Two CBC members are marking milestones as the first women and first African-Americans to chair their respective panels: Rep. Maxine WatersMaxine Moore WatersOn The Money: Shutdown Day 27 | Trump fires back at Pelosi by canceling her foreign travel | Dems blast 'petty' move | Trump also cancels delegation to Davos | House votes to disapprove of Trump lifting Russia sanction Financial system can forge bipartisanship in Congress Ocasio-Cortez, freshmen poised to take on Wall Street MORE (D-Calif.) atop the Financial Services Committee and Rep. Eddie Bernice JohnsonEddie Bernice JohnsonCongress can stop the war on science Black Caucus sees power grow with new Democratic majority K Street works to court minority lawmakers MORE (D-Texas) overseeing the Science, Space and Technology Committee. 

The changes come after the House GOP committee chair roster offered little racial diversity for eight years. Former Rep. Ileana Ros-LehtinenIleana Carmen Ros-LehtinenYoder, Messer land on K Street Ex-GOP lawmaker from Washington joins lobbying firm Black Caucus sees power grow with new Democratic majority MORE (Fla.), the first Latina elected to Congress, led the Foreign Affairs Committee during part of the GOP majority. Rep. Devin NunesDevin Gerald NunesBlack Caucus sees power grow with new Democratic majority Nunes's 2018 Dem challenger launches voting rights group Democrats: Concentrate on defeating, not impeaching MORE (Calif.), who is of Portuguese descent, was the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and remains the panel’s top Republican. Both have also been members of the Congressional Hispanic Conference.

It’s a sore spot for Republicans that’s drawing a sharp contrast with the makeup of the new Democratic majority.

“The Republican Party needs to understand that the makeup of the United States has changed,” CBC Chairwoman Karen BassKaren Ruth BassHouse vote fails to quell storm surrounding Steve King House Democrats offer measures to censure Steve King Congressional Black Caucus calls for Steve King to be removed from committees MORE (D-Calif.) said. “The Republican side of the aisle looks like the America of the past.”

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Diversity in committee leadership is already giving way to a change in policy priorities.

Waters recently told Vox that she plans to create a Financial Services subcommittee specifically focused on diversity and inclusion. 

“We believe that not only are we going to be able to define very clearly for everybody where there is discrimination but also have recommendations and try to work with all of the entities that are involved to eliminate it,” Waters told Vox.

Waters has openly invoked her personal identity. Indeed, Waters went viral last year for challenging Republicans’ move to repeal a consumer protection agency’s guidance meant to ensure lenders couldn’t charge minorities more for auto loans. 

“I am more offended as an African-American woman than you will ever be,” Waters told Rep. Mike KellyGeorge (Mike) Joseph KellyBlack Caucus sees power grow with new Democratic majority GOP lawmaker Mike Kelly wins reelection in Pennsylvania WaPo fact-checker accuses Republicans of misleading voters about fact-checks MORE (R-Pa.) in a fiery House floor debate.

Waters already has a nationwide following and, beyond her diversity and inclusion efforts, is sure to make headlines on other key oversight priorities. She has expressed interest in Deutsche Bank’s financial records of President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump directed Cohen to lie to Congress about plans to build Trump Tower in Moscow during 2016 campaign: report DC train system losing 0k per day during government shutdown Senate Republicans eye rules change to speed Trump nominees MORE and the Trump administration’s efforts to weaken the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Johnson, for her part, wants to make promoting minority participation in the STEM workforce one of her policy priorities while leading the Science Committee. She plans to reintroduce legislation that would require federal agencies to collect demographic data on federal research grant recipients and promote research on women’s and minorities’ STEM trajectories. 

Johnson has firsthand experience with diversity in STEM fields: she was also the first woman and African-American to serve as chief psychiatric nurse at the Dallas Veterans Affairs Hospital.

“This experience has contributed to my understanding how crucial and necessary it is to promote the participation of minorities in our STEM workforces,” Johnson said in a statement to The Hill.

Thompson, meanwhile, acknowledged that hailing from a state with a history of racial violence informs his perspective while handling domestic terrorism issues, particularly with the rise of hate crimes from right-wing extremists in recent years.

“It allows me to look at the issue more broadly than perhaps someone who is from another part of the country. Being an African-American uniquely positions me to be sensitive to domestic terrorism,” Thompson said in an interview.

The current slate of ranking Republicans on committees is all white and currently includes just two women: Rep. Kay GrangerNorvell (Kay) Kay GrangerBlack Caucus sees power grow with new Democratic majority The Year Ahead: Tough tests loom for Trump trade agenda Dem lawmaker pledges hearings after CIA briefing on Khashoggi MORE (Texas) at Appropriations and Rep. Virginia FoxxVirginia Ann FoxxBlack Caucus sees power grow with new Democratic majority A 2 billion challenge: Transforming US grant reporting Trump calls North Carolina redistricting ruling ‘unfair’ MORE (N.C.) at Education and Labor. 

There’s been little opportunity for GOP leaders to elevate African-Americans in their caucus, simply because there are so few of them. Rep. Will HurdWilliam Ballard HurdLatest funding bill to reopen the government fails in House GOP maps out early 2020 strategy to retake House Juan Williams: Trump's wall is founded on fiction MORE (R-Texas) is currently the only African-American in the 199-member House Republican Conference.

But CBC members have gradually gained more and more influence over the years in the Democratic caucus.

The power CBC members hold now, Thompson said, is “a sign that we’ve come a long way from the belly of ships to the No. 3 person of the House of Representatives and those chairmanships.”