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Is the Congressional Black Caucus Dying of Neglect?

April 20, 2010 by  
Filed under News, Weekly Columns

( Shunned by President Obama, the organization could be out in the cold in the next Administration unless it finds a new role

Shunned by President Obama, the organization could be out in the cold in the next Administration unless it finds a new role.

Has President Obama killed off the Congressional Black Caucus? From the very beginning, President Obama and his campaign promised the CBC nothing, so no one – not even the 42 CBC members – should be shocked that, at this point, they have gained minimal legislative progress with Obama in the White House and that they have apparently lost much of the influence they had in Washington.

The President and his administration seem to have unique disregard for the CBC. This could be because, at the beginning of his candidacy, many of its members urged him not to run while they publically supported Hillary Clinton’s bid for President. Since taking office 16 months ago, he has been slow to meet with the Caucus and when he did it was after meeting with old-line civil rights leaders.

If President Obama does not find a way to empower the CBC, he has effectively neutralized it, not just for the duration of his Presidency, but for future administrations as well. The issue could have repercussions beyond this moment; the after-effects could be even more damaging under a Romney, Pawlenty or Palin presidency. For now, the Caucus is made to sit at the small table and be quiet; under the next Republican presidency it may have to eat outside.

With the election of Barack Obama, power shifted for black Americans in ways that none of us were ready for, and collectively, we still haven’t wrapped our minds completely around what his presidency and administration can mean for the future of black people on a practical level. With his election, we had every right to be elated and overjoyed; the experience was cathartic for most of us. We needed that moment after eight long Bush years. We needed some relief from the burden of being overlooked and underserved in America.

The irony is that the CBC probably had more leverage with Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter than with President Obama. Those two previous Democrats couldn’t afford to have African-American constituents see them seem high-handed with the CBC. President Obama doesn’t have that problem. Many people voted for more than Obama. We also voted for a Democrat with a broad progressive agenda and trusted that he would aid all the underserved in a way that no other President has in the last fifteen years.

We finally had a President who would look out for the welfare of all people. I was in Grant Park on Election night and I’ll never forget how elated I felt. But as I walked to my car, I started to contemplate what his victory really meant. Eighteen months after his election, the questions have become more pronounced and I’m not the only one asking them. The CBC, founded in January 1969 by the newly elected African American representatives of the 77th Congress, had strong and respectable legislators, who cared about the people who sent them to Washington to protect their interest. However, with the election of President Obama, the CBC has encountered opposition not from the other side of the aisle but with subtlety from the Oval Office.

The silencing of the CBC by the White House has been confusing for Black America. The CBC has long served as the bridge between the ways of Washington and the consciousness of urban America. Its members have served urban communities, which in America is a specific demographic: black and brown, women and children.

For previous presidential administrations, the CBC was a powerful political utility that could translate public policy into language that Black America could understand. But with the election of Barack Obama, the CBC has been displaced and relegated to placeholders instead of stakeholders in shaping the betterment and recovery of their constituents.

In November 2009, the CBC began promoting solutions to the White House and Congress, including funding for job training, summer job programs, and existing federal job initiatives to be directed to the communities hardest hit by unemployment. Specifically, the members called for at least 10 percent of funding for these programs to target areas with poverty rates of 15 percent or higher, or unemployment greater than 10 percent.

All of these provisions were ignored in the first jobs bill. Fighting back against the snub, 21 members of the Congressional Black Caucus voted “nay” on the bill. And although it narrowly passed, the protest showed that they have the potential to block Obama’s agenda if they continue to be ignored.

Recently, the cries from the caucus have been more pronounced and direct. U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah said in a published report that the Congressional Black Caucus is simply representing its constituents. “What I think the CBC is saying is that our voices have to be raised on behalf of our constituents, just as the Blue Dogs or any other caucus does,” Fattah said. “In politics, what happens is the squeaky wheel gets the oil.”

The President has been forthright with the CBC and with black America on his strategy: “I will tell you that I think the most important thing I can do for the African-American community is the same thing I can do for the American community, period, and that is get the economy going again and get people hiring again,” the president told Richard Wolf of USA Today.

From a political standpoint, the Obama administration has had other good reasons to keep the Caucus at arm’s length. This underlying issues around ethics and the Caucus’ financing, as reported in an article in the New York Times article that is strongly disputed by the CBC Foundation, have presented the White House with deep problems about engaging without getting absorbed in the ongoing ethics probe of Reps. Charles Rangel, Gregory Meeks and Maxine Waters, amongst others. So it is no wonder that the President has had a long-distance strategy with the CBC: if he gets too close, his political enemies will use the CBC’s alleged indiscretions as a wedge issue that ultimately could stall his whole agenda.

Maybe black America did not count up the political, social and economic price of being able to say “We have a black President.” Investing in this new power structure has left us, at least at the moment, vulnerable. There is no one saying, “Black America is too big to fail.” But, if you haven’t noticed, we are falling behind in nearly every measurable category in America. For black America, The President’s administration is like having a BMW 650si parked in your driveway that has no transmission: it’s pretty, but it doesn’t go anywhere, however I guess there is some consolation with saying at least you have one.

When the White House needs to communicate to black America (which has not been often), it talks to it directly, not needing the advocacy of the CBC like former administrations. I understand why: the President is black and has the most recognizable image and viable brand that we have ever seen, so the CBC is like the extra screws in the box after you assemble a book shelf; you just don’t need them so you put them in the drawer.

The Obama administration must find a way to empower the caucus now. The reason being, while our love for President Obama is deep, we must all remember that one day he will not be President. He will leave Washington either in 2013 or 2017, write his memoirs and raise money for the Barack Obama Presidential Library.

So, what will come of the CBC after he is gone? If it is powerless and stagnant under his administration, what will be its role or relevance under a Republican administration? The CBC’s viability will be dictated by its ability to survive and function effectively. The next GOP administration can well respond to the CBC’s requests for more funding and more care by bringing up the fact that when it had a black President, he did nothing for them.

In the past, the President has responded by saying that “a rising tide lifts all boats” and that his job “is to be president of the whole country.” Well with all due respect to the President; black America’s boat was foreclosed on a long time ago, so we still need the CBC to work for us and for the President to find a way to work with them.

Written By Patrick D. Shaffer

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