The Black Caucus: Capitol Hill's New Young Turks

Not too long ago, you could count the members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) on one hand. And for decades, African-American lawmakers have often been ignored, sometimes patronized, and usually taken for granted. No more.

Changes in the political map have pushed the caucus into prominence in the House. Congressional redistricting spawned a dozen new black-majority congressional districts, most of them outside the traditional strongholds of Northeastern and Midwestern inner cities. And consequently, the 1992 elections increased caucus membership from 26 to 39. That represents nearly 15% of House Democrats.

The Dec. 9 election of Baltimore Democrat Kweisi Mfume as caucus chairman marks the emergence of a new generation within the CBC. Increasingly, the battle-scarred veterans of the civil rights struggle have been replaced by a set of street-smart pols focused on economic empowerment and political networking.

Mfume may be a consensus-builder, but he has quickly let his colleagues, both black and white, know he means business. He plans to develop a rating system to grade lawmakers on issues of concern to African Americans. The leadership got a taste of the CBC's ire when the House Foreign Affairs Committee considered dropping its Africa subcommittee. Caucus members angrily objected, and House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) agreed to retain the panel.

PARTNERSHIP. Members of the emboldened caucus are trying to pressure the Democratic leadership to stick to its liberal guns, not to move toward trendy centrism. Although the credibility gf the threat is yet to be tested, Mfume says he's willing to scuttle legislation by cooperating with Republicans if his own party's leadership gives short shrift to black demands. "No longer are we going to be looked at as an addendum to the Democratic agenda," he declares. "We are going to be taken seriously. Anything short of a partnership could prompt us to respond in kind. If that means killing an important piece of leadership-backed legislation, then that will be the case."

In addition to its bolstered numbers, the caucus is strengthened by the growing power of its members. Liberals from safe Democratic seats in big cities have been able to stick around long enough to win key positions. Ronald V. Dellums (D-Calif.) recently became chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. John Lewis (D-Ga.) is the Democrats' Chief Deputy Whip and is being talked about as a future Majority Leader. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) chairs the Government Operations Committee, and African Americans are in line to take over the Ways & Means Committee and the Judiciary Committee in coming years.

COALITIONS. In a break with its exclusively urban past, however, the CBC is building coalitions across racial and party lines to tackle specific problems. One example: finding a solution to the crisis in rural hospitals. More and more, the focus is on economic empowerment rather than entitlement. Caucus goals include tax incentives to spur investment in inner cities and poor rural areas, increased lending to minority businesses, higher infrastructure spending, improved housing for low- to middle-income Americans, and ensuring that President Clinton keeps his promise to run a government that "looks like America"--especially when it comes to appointing federal judges and prosecutors.

While House Democratic leaders agree with nearly all the priorities of the black caucus, they worry that there is not enough money to pay for them. The CBC has found political power, and Mfume seems itching to wield it. But with the knives out for federal spending, producing economic empowerment for minorities will still be a tough fight.

Richard S. Dunham in Washington

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE