Black Power on Capitol Hill? - The shape of the 110th Congress
Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s announcement in November that she would not award the chairmanship of the House Intelligence Committee to Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (D-Fla.) in the 110th Congress surprised many members of the Congressional Black Caucus. Pelosi (D-Calif.), then a shoo-in as the first woman Speaker of the House of Representatives, offered no clear reason for her decision, but there is widespread speculation that, in an era of “ethical lapses,” she was less inclined to back Hastings, whose political career is tainted by an old bribery scandal.
Still, a record number of African-Americans would claim positions of power on Capitol Hill. James Clyburn of South Carolina was chosen as majority whip, making him the third most powerful voice in the House after Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). Clyburn is the second Black to hold the rank of majority whip after former Rep. William Gray of Pennsylvania held it in from 1989 to 1991.
Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) was long-destined for chairmanship of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. He began to flex his new muscle even before Congress convened on Jan. 4, calling for a military draft and pledging not to tamper with the war budget in Iraq. Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) was more guarded about his plans as new chair of the House Judiciary Committee. Dean of the CBC, Conyers practically has been a solitary voice in Congress for reparations to African-Americans for slavery. He garnered more media attention when he put forth a measure to begin investigating the possible impeachment of President Bush.
Given the seniority of Rangel, 76, and Conyers, 77, editorials in Black publications ask why these veteran lawmakers were not considered for Speaker of the House. That, however, means trudging into the murky waters of race at a time when Black politicians probably are grateful to have as much clout as they have since 1993-94, when Black representatives chaired three fairly insignificant committees.
In the first Democrat-controlled Congress since 1994, two other Black lawmakers were poised to take the helm of full House committees: Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), 58, who has been outspoken on the inadequate response by the federal government to Hurricane Katrina, for chairmanship of Homeland Security, and Juanita Millender-McDonald (D-Calif.), 68, for the House Administration Committee. Blacks would chair a number of subcommittees:
- Civil rights legend John Lewis of Georgia: Oversight; California’s Diane Watson: Energy and Resources;
- Kendrick B. Meek, Florida: Man-agement Integration and Oversight subcommittee, Committee on Home-land Security;
- Danny K. Davis, Illinois: Federal Workforce and Agency Organization subcommittee, Committee on Gov-ernment Reform;
- Corrine Brown, Florida: Railroads subcommittee, Committee on Trans-portation and Infrastructure;
- Eddie Bernice Johnson, Texas: Water Resources and Environment subcommittee, Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure;
- Eleanor Holmes Norton, Washington, D.C.: Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management subcommittee, Committee on Trans-portation and Infrastructure.
Sheila Jackson-Lee (Texas), Robert C. Scott (Virginia) and Melvin Watt (N.C.), who is the current chair of the CBC, serve on various subcommittees in the House Judiciary Committee. William Lacy Clay Jr., Missouri, and Edolphus Towns, New York, are members of a subcommittee under Government Reform. And New Jersey’s redoubtable Donald Payne will continue to be a vital voice on International Relations.
Some anticipated that Maxine Waters, California, would be given a more significant role in the revised committees and subcommittees, but she may have just the slot she needs in Financial Services.
While chairing a committee or a subcommittee obviously brings a bit of power and prestige, and certainly more influence than a regular member enjoys, it still is only one vote. Black America will have to wait to see how these new positions translate into benefits for their community.
As rosy as the Black political scene might seem, it should be noted that at 43, Black lawmakers number just 30 more than they did in 1969, when the CBC was founded, that leaves Black America’s representation in the House three points shy of 13 percent of the national population. But if Rangel, Conyers and their cohorts continue to be as vocal and determined as they have been in the past, their commitments will more than compensate for the shortfall.
By Herb Boyd