The CBC, which was founded along with black affinity groups in many professions, has been a support system for its members. In recent years, CBC members have been intensely loyal and defensive of those in its ranks who have faced ethics charges. Rangel, who was censured on the House floor last year, was supported by all but one member of the caucus.
Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) is also drawing support from some caucus members as she faces a stalled investigation into whether she improperly worked to secure federal aid for a bank in which her husband was a large investor. Waters has said she plans to mount a vigorous defense.
In anniversary celebrations, the caucus will highlight legislative markers that include: getting set-asides for minority-owned businesses written into federal law, establishing a federal holiday in honor of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and getting Congress to pass sanctions against South Africa during apartheid.
“We do not suffer in silence. We work outside the box,” Waters said. “We use every strategy that is available to us.”
Over the years, they also fought for plum committee assignments. It was a source of agitation and a joke among CBC members in 1971 that Shirley Chisholm — the first black woman elected to Congress — was assigned to an agriculture committee. She was from Brooklyn. “There are no trees in Brooklyn,” she would say.
“We thought we should utilize our strength by trying to get black members of Congress into the entire structure of Congress,” said Louis Stokes, a CBC founder who retired from the House in 1999 and is now a lawyer in Ohio.
Stokes became the first black member of the Appropriations Committee. Chisholm was appointed to the Rules Committee, and Rangel was assigned a place on Ways and Means.
Jim E. Clyburn, the third-highest ranking Democrat in the House, said the modern caucus has to be “innovative.” Clyburn (S.C.) cited the CBC’s push to include a program in the $787 billion economic stimulus package directing dollars to communities where 20 percent of the population has been living below the poverty level for at least 30 years.
Other strategies regularly employed by the CBC make noise but do not change policy, said Andra Gillespie, a political scientist at Emory University who has studied the caucus and black politics. Each year, the CBC writes an alternative budget — one that receives little attention on Capitol Hill. And its legislative conference is as notable for its social gatherings as for its political science panels.
“The criticism of the CBC is that its work is largely symbolic,” she said. “But we still need the caucus. We still need people to figure out what it takes to reduce the unemployment gap between blacks and whites and to reduce the wealth gap. They are a voice.”