For Black Caucus, An Era of Progress, A Time for Patience

By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 28, 2007

The stage Wednesday night at the Congressional Black Caucus's annual legislative conference was a dream that was 37 years old, as old as the caucus itself.

No longer just liberal backbenchers railing at Congress's leadership, the lawmakers who opened the conference were the power elite: the chairmen of the House Ways and Means, Judiciary, Homeland Security, and ethics committees, as well as the House's third-ranking Democrat.

"I had to keep quiet, I have to say, because I couldn't break in without my voice cracking," said Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), the House majority whip. "It was that emotional."

But with so much power has come expectations that the leaders of the veteran caucus know it can't meet, at least for now. For decades, Democratic leaders have somewhat patronizingly dubbed the CBC "the conscience of the Congress." But the senior lawmakers of the caucus are no longer simply a Greek chorus, exhorting their leadership to embrace the issues that tend to be forgotten, such as poverty and race.

They are the leadership, and much of the gathering through Saturday at the Washington Convention Center will be about tamping down expectations, Clyburn conceded.

"People are here with great anticipation," Clyburn said, marveling at the traffic he has been fighting just to get to what is by far and away the best-attended legislative conference the black caucus has put on. "People are here because they think that finally, finally after all these years, we have members we've been here hobnobbing with for 37 years who for the first time are chairs of committees. What we have to be very careful of, and I've tried to do this, is not to lower expectations but to caution people it still need 218 votes to pass legislation."

It has not taken long for that reality to set in.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) made the case last year that President Bush may have committed offenses in office that were worthy of at least investigating with an eye on possible impeachment. Now, as committee chairman, he is having difficulty simply restoring rights to suspected terrorists that were revoked when Republicans controlled Congress.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) has bold plans to remake the tax code, abolishing an alternative minimum tax that has become increasingly onerous on middle-class households while raising levies on the affluent. But such ambitions are on hold as congressional tax writers try to determine how to simply hold the AMT at bay for another year.

House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) has already shepherded into law one of the most significant measures of the Democratic Congress, a bill to institute most of the remaining recommendations of the bipartisan commission that examined the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. But in so doing, he had to drop one of the Democrats' top priorities for the law, a measure to allow federal transportation security workers to unionize.

As for Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-Ohio), chairman of the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, among her first tasks has been to investigate one of the Congressional Black Caucus's own, Rep. William J. Jefferson (D-La.), who faces bribery and conspiracy indictments.

And the caucus has been facing more pressure within the Democratic Caucus to be more willing to sacrifice for the good of the larger party. Some black House members in extremely safe Democratic districts have been under pressure to donate more of their huge campaign war chests to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

And black Democrats in the South are quietly being asked to give some of the heavily black areas of their districts to neighboring Republican districts to put more seats in play.

Rep. Kendrick B. Meek (D-Fla.), who helped put together this week's conference, protested that some of those complaints are unfair. Some members are amassing war chests with their eyes on higher offices. Already, Clyburn has given up part of his district to help Rep. John M. Spratt Jr. (D-S.C.), who is white, defend his seat in an increasingly hostile state.

Still, CBC members say, even as the terrain changed with their accession to power, caucus members have vowed not to forget their roots as they legislate.

"When you have African Americans in the chairman's seat, you can't help but craft legislation that reflects their background and experiences," Clyburn said. "That diversity of perspective helps create legislation that better reflects our country."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company