Members of the Black Congressional Caucus speak out on issues, from left are: Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., Rep. Marcia L. Fudge, D-Ohio, Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
As the country’s first Black president prepares to leave the White House, African-American members of Congress are exerting increasing influence on Capitol Hill.
The Congressional Black Caucus has emerged as the driving force behind several dramatic standoffs in Washington this year – most recently spurring successful efforts to secure funding for the water crisis in Flint, Mich. as part of a budget deal that sent lawmakers home for the elections.
“Our minority caucuses do not want to vote for a bill that does not have Flint in it,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told reporters, just hours before striking the deal to secure at least $170 million in Flint funding. “I don’t think our black caucus will vote for it…without Flint.”
The CBC has always been an influential faction of House Democrats, but its power is rising as Congress struggles to respond to a series of racially charged police shootings of African-Americans around the country. The 43-member caucus — which includes only one Republican, Utah Rep. Mia Love — now intends to capitalize on that influence to force action on issues of importance to black Americans.
In addition to pushing the budget to the brink over Flint funding, CBC leaders like Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) helped organize a nationally televised sit-in in June demanding votes on gun control legislation.
“The extent to which you get agreement on Flint essentially means that we are educating our caucus” of House Democrats, said Rep. Jim Clyburn (S.C.), the House’s No. 3 Democrat. “I will use that success, to show we have not just zeroed in on this, in the next Congress.”
Clyburn said that despite the incidents playing out across the country, and the racially-charged language that has taken over the debate surrounding it, the country is better off than it was when Obama took office.
“President Obama took the baton from us, and now he’s about to give it back,” Clyburn said. “He’s handing the baton to us with the country in a much better place than it was when we handed it to him.”
Black lawmakers trace the current upswing in influence to a bitter debate over allowing Confederate flags on federal grounds forced Republicans to yank a spending bill off the House floor.
New York Democrat Hakeem Jeffries called that episode, and the 25-hour sit-in over gun control, “probably the two most dramatic moments that we’ve had in the House since the government shutdown” in 2013.
Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), a former CBC chair, said that the House leadership is taking notice of the group’s increased clout.
“The leadership is far more sensitive on the issue of inclusion and making sure that everybody’s voice counts than in previous times here in Congress,” Cleaver said. “So it’s not like ‘Oh, here they come again.’ It was like: ‘We know you guys are interested and we want you to come up and talk.’”
Black lawmakers are also responding to a political atmosphere in which GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump charged that Black Lives Matter protests are driving the killings by police and said that black communities are “in the worst shape they’ve ever been.”
And they’ve spoken out, loudly, when some of their colleagues — most recently North Carolina Republican Rep. Robert Pittenger — have made racially inept remarks. In televised comments to the BBC, Pittenger said that black protesters “hate white people” — comments that CBC members called “ignorant” and “beyond the pale.”
CBC Chairman G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.) said last week that Pittenger had personally and sincerely “apologized multiple times” for what he said, and that the CBC is “ready to move on.”
But the episode, as well as the legislative muscle the CBC has been flexing, illustrate a key element of the group’s strategy.
“When we are united we are a force to be reckoned with,” said Butterfield said.
Members say being in the House minority has made it easier for Democrats to band together. “We don’t control either body here, and we’ve been forced to work better together,” Clyburn said. “As a result, I think you’ve seen some better results.”
Black lawmakers said they now intend to focus on economic solutions in other majority-black cities. They said their next fights will be for resources to expand access to housing, education, and the sort of community revitalization programs that attract business, tax dollars, and better water, sewage, roads and bridges as a result.
Clyburn expressed optimism that such changes were within reach, pointing to recent bipartisan support for a CBC-championed anti-poverty plan, which Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) have both endorsed.
But in order to expand their influence, Clyburn and other CBC members are acutely aware that their challenge is to convince their colleagues that the issues that matter to African-Americans should matter to all Americans.
Poverty, they believe, is an area where that should be an easy sell. “We have had the kind of experiences like the people in Flint, so we can personalize this stuff in a way that a lot of other members can’t,” Clyburn said. “But it’s time for us to get beyond this color business…this is not about black communities, this is about needy communities.”
White communities in places like Kentucky and West Virginia are just as economically bad if not worse off than many poor black communities, Clyburn pointed out. Two-thirds of poor counties in America are represented by Republicans, he added, expressing frustration that “the moment you start talking about poverty, the face of poverty’s always black.”