Black Congressional Leaders Address Health Care, Economy

The 39th Annual Legislative Conference, sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) Foundation, is underway in the nation's capital. Many issues are at the forefront of the gathering, including health care and the economy. Caucus members Rep. Elijah Cummings, a Democrat from Maryland, and Del. Donna Christensen, a Democrat from the U.S. Virgin Islands, discusses

Copyright © 2009 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, as the Jewish high holidays continue, a story of survival and the long road to healing. It's a story of a Holocaust survivor and how, despite her best efforts, she passed on the trauma of those years to her daughter and granddaughter, and what they're doing to stop the cycle of pain. That's this week's Faith Matters conversation, and it's in just a few minutes.

But first, the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation holds its annual legislative conference in Washington this weekend. In many ways, the caucus has never been stronger. One of its former members is now president. There are 42 black members of Congress, including four committee chairs. The caucus should be, by most measures, at the height of its power and influence. Is it?

We decided to check in with two members of the CBC, congressman Elijah Cummings, who represents the 7th district in Maryland, is a former chair of the caucus; and delegate Donna Christensen, who represents the U.S. Virgin Islands. She's also a medical doctor and chairs the caucus's health and wellness task force. Welcome to you both - welcome back, I should say.

Representative ELIJAH CUMMINGS (Democrat, Maryland): It's good to be here.

Delegate DONNA CHRISTENSEN(Democrat, U.S. Virgin Islands): It's great to be here.

MARTIN: Congressman Cummings, let's set the table. As we mentioned, a black president, historically large number of African-American members of Congress, four committee chairs. As a former chairman, I would ask you the question I think some would ask - is, why do we still need a caucus?

Rep. CUMMINGS: We still need a caucus because there are just phenomenal disparities in our nation between people of color, particularly African-American and Hispanics, and the white population.

Right now, Michel, we are going through the worst economic crisis that many of us have ever seen, and the unemployment rate with regard to African-Americans is almost double that of the rest of the general population. And that leads to a lot of things that I know Donna will want to talk about, and that is health care. A lot of - most people's health care is connected with their jobs. So when you lose your job, you lose your health care. We are in difficult times, and so we have a lot of difficult challenges.

MARTIN: To that point then, just the last question on this, is that the caucus's task is to address the specific concerns of African-Americans. Why isn't Steve Cohen a member, who represents a majority black district, whereas there are black members of Congress whose districts are majority white? It's a very diverse caucus.

Rep. CUMMINGS: Yeah, Steve has his input.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Rep. CUMMINGS: He has his input…

MARTIN: Why do you laugh?

Rep. CUMMINGS: No, because I think that a lot of people don't understand that we welcome the views of all. And we - most of us have huge populations of people other than African-Americans. As a matter of fact, many of us have majority white districts.

MARTIN: Let's just put it this way: A minority of the districts of members of the Black Caucus are majority African-Americans.

Rep. CUMMINGS. Yeah, but Steve's - his views are well represented.

MARTIN: Delegate Christensen…

Del. CHRISTENSEN: Yes.

MARTIN: The conference takes place at a time, as congressman Cummings mentioned, of just real ferment around a number of issues like Afghanistan, the economy, of - certainly the debate over health care. What do you think the caucus's role is in these significant issues, specific role.

Del. CHRISTENSEN: Well, first of all, to be a voice for our constituents, those that we represent. But the Congressional Black Caucus has always been the conscience of the Congress, and we continue to fill that role, looking for what is the right path and urging our leadership to follow a path that is best for our country and best for the world.

In health care, we played a - and that's the hot topic on the Hill these days. We played a very, very instrumental role in insisting that insurance is not enough. That while it's extremely important to make sure that everyone has access to insurance equality, comprehensive health care, African-Americans and other people of color together make up more than half of the uninsured.

If the services are not there in our communities, the insurance is not going to help us out very much. Hence, the Institute of Medicine has shown back in 2002, and many other reports have followed up on that, to show that even with insurance, African-Americans don't get the same kind of health care. So there are a lot of things that have to be addressed in addition to the insurance, and the Congressional Black Caucus has played a great role in that.

MARTIN: Delegate Christensen, to that point, the CBC wrote a letter in advance of the president's address to the Congress on health care, asking the president to ensure a strong public option, particularly to cover the health-care needs of the uninsured. But the administration does not seem to be embracing that perspective at all.

I mean, does that suggest that the CBC, despite its presence, despite its numbers, despite its number of people in leadership positions, does not have that much influence with the president on this key issue?

Del. CHRISTENSEN: Well, I think that the president is still of the mind that the public option is the best way to ensure that there is insurance for this 47 or so million people who don't have insurance. And the best way to force the private insurance companies to lower their costs and for - over the long term - to bend the cost curve and stop the escalating costs of health care, I think the president still feels that way.

When the president speaks, he's speaking to the entire Congress. And I think he does - he speaks in such a way as to leave the door open and not close anyone out. You know, he started out wanting a bipartisan bill. I hope by now, he's given up on that idea. But also, the Congressional Black Caucus is not the only caucus that is insisting on a public option.

The Asian Pacific Caucus and the Hispanic Caucus and the Black Caucus together, we've all written as one unit saying the same thing. The progressive caucus wants a public option, our leadership wants a public option, though - we have a lot of influence.

MARTIN: Congressman Cummings?

Rep. CUMMINGS: I think a lot of the influence also comes with regard to having this president in office right now because - I'm sure Donna will agree with me - he gets it. See, it's one thing when you've got to sit there and sensitize somebody to issues or explain to them how AIDS is harming African-American women and so forth and so on, and explain this better. President Barack Obama already gets it. So, that's a good starting place.

But one of the things that Donna said that I want to emphasize, he's trying to thread a very, very - put a thread through a small hole in the needle. He's got conservatives, he's got - even in our own party, Democratic Party, there are conservatives, moderates and liberals. And so, trying to pull all that together and come out with a bill - Michel, we have no choice. We must produce a bill.

And all the things that Donna just said leads to two things: deaths, and unnecessary pain and sickness. So when these people are not insured, they die.

MARTIN: Well, does that mean that you can support a bill that doesn't have a public option as long as it figures out some way, or addresses some way, getting more people into health, getting access to health care and health insurance?

Rep. CUMMINGS: I'm like Michael Jordan. I just keep my eye on the vision of what I believe is most important at this moment, and that is the public option.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We are speaking with congressman Elijah Cummings of Maryland, and delegate Donna Christensen of the Virgin Islands. We're talking about the Congressional Black Caucus's legislative weekend, which is this weekend. We're talking about the CBC's role in the pressing issues of the day.

Delegate Christensen, can you support a bill that doesn't have a public option as long as it addresses the fundamental question of getting health care to more people, or more people access to health care?

Del. CHRISTENSEN: Well, you know, I think it's key that we pass health-care reform. But you know, I really want us to do it right. And to me, right means having that public option. There's so much misinformation about what that public option is. People hear public option and they say, government is taking over my health care. Well, where government has the - has run health care, like in Medicare and in the VA system, they've done a pretty good job. But the public option is just one insurance plan that will be there in the exchange with the private insurance plans from which individuals can choose.

So, I wanted to make that point because you hear so much, I don't want government taking over my health care, I don't want a Canadian style of health care - and Canada isn't doing that bad. But that public option is very important. I don't think we are going to be able to achieve all that we want to achieve without the public option.

MARTIN: And so…

Del. CHRISTENSEN: I might say the co-ops - really I don't think measure up.

MARTIN: Are you saying, then, you cannot support a bill if it doesn't have a public option?

Del. CHRISTENSEN: Well, I never want to say definitively I cannot, because I'm going to have to look at the whole picture when we get to that point. But I'm going to continue to press very strongly for a public option. And you know, I think there has been some momentum behind it in the past week or so. There are still many, many polls, even in conservative districts, that show that the majority of people in those districts want a public option.

So, the majority of people around the country want a public option. And so, I know that we are on the right track. We're listening to the people and we're doing what they're saying that they want and what we know, from really careful study of the situation, is best.

MARTIN: Congressman Cummings, just a final thought from you. You said earlier that this is a president who gets it vis-a-vis the concerns of the African-American community. But as of course you know, there's some discontent rumbling in the country around the president's performance on some issues.

You see a recent Pew Poll - indicated that the president has lost some support particularly among white Democrats, even though African-Americans continue support him. There are those on the progressive side of the political spectrum who are disappointed with the president's stance on Afghanistan, and who are disappointed on the issue we have been talking about, on the public option. They don't think he is pursuing it aggressively enough.

I wanted to ask, do you think that this president has done enough to address the particular concerns of African-Americans along with those of others?

Rep. CUMMINGS: I think he has done a very good job. There are always going to be those who are impatient. But one of the things that we have to keep in mind is, just because you have an African-American president doesn't mean that abracadabra, everything changes overnight.

And we also have to keep in mind - when you talk about Afghanistan, for example, that he has some broader things that he has got to deal with. I mean, it's just not, of course, health care, but he has got just numerous issues. And piled on top of that, of course, is our economic situation. And so I think that, you know, the birthers and folk like that coming to town hall meetings, and folks going to talk shows have said some things that probably have had some impact. But I think he's got a difficult job. I think he is balancing it pretty good. And he is going to - I think in the end, what's going to get this president through very successfully is his focus: staying focused, getting the job done, taking into consideration everybody's views, and then moving forward to do what he thinks is best for the country.

MARTIN: Well, have a good weekend.

Rep. CUMMINGS: Thank you.

MARTIN: Congressman Elijah Cummings represents Maryland's 7th congressional district. He joined us here in our Washington, D.C., studios. Representative Donna Christensen represents the U.S. Virgin Islands in the Congress. She joined us by phone from her home office. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Rep. CUMMINGS: Thank you.

Del. CHRISTENSEN: You're very welcome, thank you.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: