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 JeffriesJeffries defends Democratic Caucus tweet slamming Ocasio-Cortez chief of staff House Democrat pushes for censuring Trump in closed-door meeting Ocasio-Cortez top aide emerges as lightning rod amid Democratic feud 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 BookerThe Hill's Morning Report - A raucous debate on race ends with Trump admonishment Lawmakers pay tribute to late Justice Stevens Schumer throws support behind bill to study reparations MORE (D-N.J.) and Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisHarris tops Biden in California 2020 poll The Hill's Morning Report - A raucous debate on race ends with Trump admonishment Democrats fret over Trump cash machine MORE (D-Calif.). That’s up from the previous record of 49, from the last Congress.

Rep. Elijah CummingsElijah Eugene CummingsLawmakers pay tribute to late Justice Stevens House poised to hold Barr, Ross in contempt Trump's family separation policy has taken US to 'lowest depth possible,' says former immigration lawyer 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 ThompsonCapitol Police chief says threats against lawmakers increasing Pro-impeachment Democrats wary of Al Green's floor vote push Hillicon Valley: FTC reportedly settles with Facebook for B fine | Trump calls to regulate Facebook's crypto project | Court rules Pentagon can award B 'war cloud' contract | Study shows automation will hit rural areas hardest MORE (D-Miss.) will oversee immigration, election security and counterterrorism issues atop the Homeland Security Committee, while Rep. Bobby ScottRobert (Bobby) Cortez ScottA minimum wage is exactly what our economy needs This week: House Democrats voting to hold Barr, Ross in contempt CBO report should spike minimum wage legislation 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 WatersSenators unload on Facebook cryptocurrency at hearing Democrat Sherrod Brown torches Facebook at hearing: They 'broke journalism,' 'helped incite a genocide' House Democrats mull bill to ban Facebook cryptocurrency project MORE (D-Calif.) atop the Financial Services Committee and Rep. Eddie Bernice JohnsonEddie Bernice JohnsonReturning to the moon to gain soft political power Some Dem chairmen have changed tune on Trump impeachment Hillicon Valley — Presented by CTIA and America's wireless industry — Prosecutors used FISA warrant to get info on Huawei | Study finds discrimination in Facebook ads | Bezos retains voting control over ex-wife's Amazon stocks 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-LehtinenWomen lawmakers to play in Congressional Baseball Game following Title IX anniversary Press beat lawmakers to keep trophy in annual softball game K Street giants scoop up coveted ex-lawmakers MORE (Fla.), the first Latina elected to Congress, led the Foreign Affairs Committee during part of the GOP majority. Rep. Devin NunesDevin Gerald NunesDemocrats' opposition research got exposed — this time, not by the Russians GOP consultant sued by Nunes asks for help paying legal costs Hillicon Valley: Hacker group targeted electric grid | House Democrats press CBP over facial recognition program | Senators offer bill to protect health data | Groups file FCC complaint over carriers' use of location data 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 Bass'Orange is the New Black' author to Congress: Reform 'patriarchal' criminal justice system Top Democrat: Mass incarceration in US is 'an embarrassment' Black Caucus leader calls Trump's attacks on minority lawmakers 'despicable' 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 KellyGOP lawmaker: 'I'm a person of color. I'm white.' Trump signs bipartisan IRS reform bill First major 'Medicare for All' hearing sharpens attacks on both sides 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 TrumpPompeo changes staff for Russia meeting after concerns raised about top negotiator's ties: report House unravels with rise of 'Les Enfants Terrible' Ben Carson: Trump is not a racist and his comments were not racist 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 GrangerLobbying world House approves bill increasing federal worker pay House approves 3 billion spending package MORE (Texas) at Appropriations and Rep. Virginia FoxxVirginia Ann Foxx58 GOP lawmakers vote against disaster aid bill The GOP's commitment to electing talented women can help party retake the House When disaster relief hurts 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 HurdPopulation shifts set up huge House battleground Trump praises GOP unity in opposing resolution condemning tweets The four Republicans who voted to condemn Trump's tweets 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.”