A SYMBOLIC BREAK has appeared in the usually solid front of the Congressional Black Caucus as its 10th Annual "Legislative Weekend," America's most pretigious black gathering, gets under way here. It is a justifiable break about things that matter.
It goes to the heart of questions an increasing number of people are asking, namely does any political good come from this weekend, when more than $2 million will flow from black hands? Or is it only a glittery social occasion? And is the Caucus willing to speak up forcefully whenever the concerns and sufferings of black people are at stake?
Anyone who hasn't spent the last few months in a cave must know the overwhelming seriousness of unemployment in the country's black communities. They'd know about that seriousness even if more than 20,000 Baltimore blacks had not shown up last week to try to get 70 government jobs -- just as we were being told the recession was bottoming out.
Full employment has long been one of the Caucus' legislative initiatives. They've supported the Humphrey-Hawkins full employment bill and reiterated their firm stand at the White House and to administration officials. They've issued guidelines for implementing full employment that would avoid making the poor cannon fodder in a war on inflation.
So why -- when the spotlight is on them this weekend -- did so many Caucus members rebel against sending a sharp rebuke to President Carter for reneging on his promise to support full employment that the entire idea was scrapped?
Rep. Augustus Hawkins (D-Calif.) wanted to send a letter to the president telling him that the Caucus could not recommend to their constituents that they support his reelection bid if he did not support the full employment program.
A little history -- recent and not as recent -- is in order here. The Caucus was very much in the forefront of the passage of the full employment act. At the 1970 Black Caucus weekend, steps to implement the bill were put forward. Over the past year the Caucus has consistently pushed the concept even as the administration went back on its promises and marched in the opposite direction.
The Caucus had little reason to rap the President's knuckles. They had done it before. Last year Carter was snubbed altogether because he had not delivered.
But, Hawkins explains, this is an election year, and therein lies the difference: "Some individuals were so strongly committed to the administration they didn't want to do anything that implied opposition. My position was not to be anti-Carter, but it was an attempt to make him a much better president and candidate."
Hawkins has subsequently scratched what was to have been a workshop on full employment because under the circumstances he didn't think he could "responsibly coordinate a workshop if I felt that what we did was not going to result in any concrete action.
"I didn't see any necessity . . . . We'd presented our findings to the Congress and the president. Everything has been ignored. Going through it again would have been a charade. Nothing could be done in a workshop. We hear a lot of speeches and very little action comes out of it."
Instead of Hawkins' full employment workshop, there will be one on rural black America.
The economics of this weekend would suggest that Hawkins could have had higher expectations. The numbers alone are staggering.
In the 10 years since the all-Democratic group of 16 blacks in the House initiated these fund-raising and brainstorming dinners, blacks have spent a great deal of money as the event has steadily increased in size. Some 6,000 persons from around the country are expected to attend this year.
The Washington Hilton where the event is centered has rented 1,000 rooms ranging from $52 for singles to $96 for doubles. At a mid-range of $74, that equals $222 from each guest or $74,000 per day, and $222,000 for the weekend. The other 7,000 guests are scattered at hotels that range from the Capitol Hilton to the Harambee to the Hyatt Regency. And it is unlikely they spent less than the special rate offered by the Hilton. That's $1,554,000 or a total of $1,776,000 for sleeping alone.
The centerpiece of the weekend is the celebrity-studded dinner where some 4,500 guests will pay $125 apiece, or $562,000. That is $562,000 going out for one meal out of a multimeal weekend. (Last year the Hilton chef said they'd served 10,000 meals in one day.) For sleeping and one meal, then, Caucus guests may pay out about $2,338,000.
To that amount must be added the thousands of plane tickets, and gallons of gasoline, taxi fares and tips, the other meals for thousands of guests, and money spent at the bars to ease the strain of networking and negotiating. Then throw in the amount paid to promote the event -- in 1978 it was $80,000.
There's something terribly ironic about blacks spending that much money and getting so little for it even as 40 miles to the north thousands are so hard-pressed they must literally storm the unemployment offices.
So the aforementioned questions still are germane. Is there too much going into the sausage grinder for what is coming out? What concrete gains have been made as a result of the Legislative Weekends?
This weekend, which features various legislative workshops, sessions and speeches, is essentially designed to raise money for the Caucus, brainstorm on issues affecting blacks and develop specific strategies and legislative proposals.
One is Rep. Parren Mitchell's minority business brain trust, which probably has been most successful because they hold ongoing workshops and hearings. From it grew the 10 percent minority set-aside program on public works projects upheld by the Supreme Court earlier this year.
When asked about concrete gains from the weekend workshops, Rep. Shirley Chisholm said through an aide that she'd rather not talk about it. "Her feeling is if you can't say something good, you don't say anything," said the aide, who didn't want to be named.
What all this means is that the Caucus or someone ought by now to have come up with some mechanism to turn the talents, energy and money into something concrete that ameliorates the admittedly tough problems of unemployment and inflation.
Gus Hawkins thinks a political arm "that constitutes a real threat" is needed. The question is easier to pose than the answer. But the time has come for serious dialogue so the weekend's event can leave a more lasting legacy than partying and fattened hotel coffers.