Black, Hispanic Caucus Members Gain Clout
The black and Hispanic caucuses emerged from this month’s elections as among the largest blocs in the House, and their members said they planned to push hard for liberal priorities such as government spending to create jobs.
Members of the two caucuses will hold nearly a third of the Democratic seats in the next Congress—61 of the party’s 190 seats—with the outcome of several additional House races still up in the air.
While centrist Democrats bore the brunt of the midterm election losses, members of the black and Hispanic caucuses, all Democrats and most of them liberal, won 56 of 60 re-election bids. They will gain seniority as the minority-party members on congressional committees and will carry a louder voice among the Democratic House contingent.
Hispanic caucus member Rep. Silvestre Reyes of Texas will likely become the ranking member of the Armed Services Committee, as the four Democrats ahead of him in seniority lost their elections. The black caucus’s Rep. Maxine Waters of California is set to become the No. 2 Democrat on the Financial Services Committee.
Caucus members acknowledge that as members of the minority party in the House, they aren’t likely to be setting the agenda.
“We’ll have to make our case for our priorities from a minority position so it will obviously be more difficult to advance the CBC agenda,” said Bobby Scott (D., Va.), who will become the crime subcommittee ranking member. “What we spend our time on will depend to a large extent on what the majority does.”
Members of the caucuses said, for instance, they might seek to serve as a barrier if Republicans attempt to roll back health care and banking regulations.
“We have to…make sure our economic policies aren’t policies to just benefit the rich,” said Rep. Barbara Lee, (D., Calif.) chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus.
But the groups also plan to push hard in certain areas, starting with job creation.
Black caucus member Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D., Ill.) plans to introduce legislation on the topic early in the next Congress. “We need legislation that is comparable to the Works Progress Administration of 1935 that puts Americans to work,” he said. “If Democrats support that, it would make us worthy of a return to power. Short of that we do not deserve to be in power.”
Another member of the caucus, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D., Texas), said the group strongly favored infrastructure investment. “We knew that would put Americans of all backgrounds to work,” she said.
The idea is likely to meet opposition from within the caucus. In an uncommon development, the Congressional Black Caucus next year will include at least one Republican, Allen West, who opposed the economic-stimulus program in his campaign.
Mr. West, an incoming freshman who won a House seat from Florida, said he would definitely join the caucus. In an interview, Mr. West said programs favored by the caucus haven’t worked, and that “failed liberal social-welfare policies” must be replaced by policies that generate private-sector growth.
Mr. West said he wanted to address unemployment among African-Americans and broaden the discussion within the caucus on “how do we extend long-term economic growth in that community.” The unemployment rate among African-Americans stood at 15.7% in October, compared with 9.6% for the work force overall.
Mr. West and Tim Scott, newly elected from South Carolina, are among only six African-Americans to be elected as Republicans to the House or Senate since the Congressional Black Caucus formed in 1969.
A spokeswoman for Mr. Scott said he hadn’t made a decision about joining the caucus. The most recent black Republican in Congress, Rep. J.C. Watts of Oklahoma, didn’t join the black caucus when he was in office. The other African-American Republican lawmakers all joined. Amid Hispanic lawmakers, Republicans in 2003 formed a separate organization, the Congressional Hispanic Conference.
A second priority for the black and Hispanic caucuses is an overhaul of immigration policies that would include a pathway to citizenship for many undocumented immigrants.
Some lawmakers say the midterm elections should give Democrats an incentive to push for new immigration laws favored by Hispanic voters. Those voters were important to the Democrats’ Senate victories in California, Nevada and Colorado, which were among the party’s few bright spots in the midterm elections.
Hispanic voters, said Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D., Ill.), “are a critically important swing constituency.” He said they would “support the party that is serious about fixing our immigration system in a way that rejects mass deportation and is realistic about how we move forward.”
While it is unclear whether incoming members of the Republicans’ Congressional Hispanic Conference will support immigration policy changes, all the current members supported a recent effort to pass similar legislation.