As Democrats prepare to flex what may be reinvigorated muscle this congressional session, the Congressional Black Caucus could be positioned to gain increased attention both from President Obama and congressional leaders.
Passage of any significant legislation in the House may need as much support from Democrats—120 votes or so—as it does from Republicans. The CBC–a bloc of 42 votes with a decidedly liberal bent—is a group that the president and congressional leaders cannot afford to ignore.
“This is a very relevant caucus,” said Norm Ornstein, a congressional expert at the American Enterprise Institute.
Eight of the 14 House members who tied as the most liberal in National Journal’s 2012 House vote ratings, released this week, are Democrats and members in the Congressional Black Caucus.
They are Reps. Yvette Clarke of New York; William Lacy Clay Jr. of Missouri; John Conyers of Michigan; Danny Davis of Illinois; Donna Edwards of Maryland; Barbara Lee of California; John Lewis of Georgia; and Bobby Rush of Illinois. Each registered a composite liberal score of 94.5 in their roll-call votes last year on issues that reflected ideological differences between members.
While not all CBC members are among the most liberal lawmakers, others who registered top liberal scores among last year’s 193 House Democrats were Reps. Karen Bass of California (tied for 15th at 92.5); Black Caucus Chairwoman Marcia Fudge of Ohio (19th at 92.2); Elijah Cummings of Maryland (tied for 20th at 91.8); Frederica Wilson of Florida (31st at 90); former CBC Chairman Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri (36th at 89.2); Hank Johnson of Georgia (37th at 89.0); Charles Rangel of New York (43rd at 87.7); Melvin Watt of North Carolina (45th at 87.5); and Keith Ellison of Minnesota (47th at 87.2).
Just as House conservatives pull Speaker John Boehner to the right, the bulk of the CBC now finds itself, in conjunction with other House liberals, in a position to exert influence on House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi—and not just because of how they vote.
CBC members hold top Democratic seats on several committees. For example, Conyers remains the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee; Cummings is the top Democrat on Oversight and Government Reform; Rep. Maxine Waters of California recently ascended to the top Democratic seat on the Financial Services Committee; and Ellison, in his post as cochair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, brings a CBC voice to the helm of an even larger group of House liberals. For instance, the progressive caucus last week sent a letter to Obama signed by 107 of the current 200 House Democrats, including most of the Black Caucus, urging him to reject proposals during the upcoming fiscal battles to cut Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security benefits.
“The president is going to have to pay attention to them. [The CBC influence] is also important both for Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner,” Ornstein said.
Just weeks into the new session, CBC members have not been shy about exerting themselves. Fudge, the new chairwoman, released a broad statement earlier this month outlining what her group will concentrate on this session. It included protecting the Voting Rights Act and enacting comprehensive immigration reform, with the four-decade-old caucus providing a voice for undocumented immigrants of African descent.
A spokesman for Fudge said that the congresswoman was unavailable to comment on the group’s agenda or the NJ voter ratings.
Meanwhile, tensions remain between some members of the caucus and the nation’s first African-American president. For instance, Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., a CBC member, last month said he believes the president ignores and disrespects black groups that helped him get reelected. He also complained that Obama’s selections for top spots in his administration are not diverse enough. Fudge has already moved this session to recommend three CBC members for the president’s Cabinet.
Obama earlier this month sent White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett to the Capitol to meet with CBC members and to listen to their views before the State of the Union.
“I think [the caucus members] play a critical role in all the issues the president put in play in his State of the Union,” said Angela Rye, a political strategist who recently left the CBC as its executive director and general counsel.
“I would say they are one of the most important voting blocs [and] most important voices in Congress,” she said. But it goes beyond their numbers, she adds. “They are more than just policy-makers–they are advocates.”
“A lot other caucuses could learn from them,” she said.
This article appears in the Feb. 19, 2013, edition of National Journal Daily.