By Lauren Victoria Burke
Even though the next Congress, which starts on January 6, will feature 48 African Americans, the largest number in history, the question is: Can they get anything done in a Congress that’s been gridlocked for four straight years?
But since most Black members will serve as members of the minority party in the House, most of their power to control federal policy and billions of dollars will be decided by compromise as they serve on major committees. Though members of the Congressional Black Caucus will not control the policy agenda, they will still play a key role in those decisions.
For the first time in history, seven members of the Congressional Black Caucus will serve as Ranking Members of major House Committees for the upcoming 114th Congress. Why does this matter? Because even a member in the minority in the hyper-partisan House, which has been controlled by Republicans since 2010, is going to have a seat at the table.
Much of what is done behind the scene goes unreported by press corps fixated on the political cat fight of the moment. And in the case of the CBC, the Black Press is the only place where their work is likely to be covered.
November 19, was one of the biggest days for the Caucus since four Black Committee Chairman were christened in January 2009.
Seven Black members of the House – Reps. John Conyers (D-Mich.), Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), Corrine Brown (D-Fla.), Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), Bobby Scott (D-Va.), Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), and Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) will have a seat at the legislative table next year as ranking committee members.
Additionally, two of the most powerful members of the Black Caucus, Reps. Sanford Bishop (D-Ga.) and Chaka Fattah (D-Penn.), are ranking members on subcommittees on the most powerful committee in the House: Appropriations. From those positions they will have a say in doling out several hundred billion dollars every fiscal year.
“Politics is about who gets what when and how and being at the table is essential to determining that those resources get where they need to be,” Rep. Bishop told the The Root in an interview.
“It is my hope that we are able to use the appropriations process and the policy making process here in Congress in a bipartisan way that will benefit all the American people,” Bishop said in the interview.
In an effort to show they can actually govern, Republicans in the 114th Congress are expected to pass legislation rather than repeat another four years of their core strategy: Gridlock. The last two years witnessed the least productive U.S. House in history in terms of bills passed, all under Republican control.
Even with the well-publicized gridlock over the last four years, Rep. Fattah was able to get the Urban Jobs Act through the House after a compromise was reached with House Republicans. The bill’s passage, which was a rare example of bipartisanship, received almost no press.
The gridlock strategy was employed by House Republicans in hopes of preventing President Obama from getting anything done. But going into the 2016 presidential campaign, Republicans are expected to show they can produce actual legislative results in what would be a huge strategic change.
As part of its normal process, the Congressional Black Caucus elected a new Chairman yesterday, Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.). Though he plans to outline a detailed strategy for the Caucus in January, he spoke in general terms about the policy focus he’ll have next Congress.
“The economy is not working for African Americans. Some are succeeding, but the vast majority of African Americans are not succeeding. It’s our job as legislators to try and enact policies that will enact policies that will move the needle – whether it’s with a coalition of Democrats or Republicans,” Butterfield told The Root.
The new chairman will inherit the largest Congressional Black Caucus in history at a time when presidential politics will play a big role in the narrative. Whether he and the Black Caucus can navigate the games of gridlock will depend on how afraid Republicans are of being tagged as the “party of no” as their presidential candidates tour the country.
Chances are those politics will be the real reason the GOP will suddenly be interested in moving legislation during President Obama’s last two years in office.
Lauren Victoria Burke is freelance writer and creator of the blog Crewof42.com, which covers African American members of Congress. She Burke appears regularly on “NewsOneNow with Roland Martin” and on WHUR FM, 900 AM WURD. She worked previously at USA Today and ABC News. She can be reached through her website, laurenvictoriaburke.com, or Twitter @Crewof42 or by e-mail at LBurke007@gmail.com.