'New York Times' Investigation Of Black Caucus Raises Questions
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
Im Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Coming up, is illegal immigration one reason African-Americans are suffering from higher than average unemployment? We will ask in just a few minutes.
But first, news about the Congressional Black Caucus. The CBC, founded in 1971, bills itself as the conscience of the Congress. Now 42-member strong, it boasts powerful committee chairs among its members, the president of the United States among its former members.
But the New York Times is also reporting that the CBCs clout extends to serious fundraising. The newspaper earlier this week reported that the Congressional Black Caucus and its foundation have raised at least $55 million between 2004 and 2008.
The paper says that, quote, the bulk of the money has been spent on elaborate conventions that have become a high point of the Washington social season as well as the headquarters building, golf outings by members of Congress, and an annual visit to a Mississippi casino resort.
Joining us to talk more about this is Eric Lipton, domestic correspondent for the New York Times Washington bureau. Hes the co-author of the piece. Also with us for additional perspective is Pam Gentry, senior political analyst for BET. Shes here with us in our D.C. studio. Welcome to you both. Thank you for joining us.
Ms. PAM GENTRY (Senior Political Analyst, BET): Thank you.
Mr. ERIC LIPTON (The New York Times): Thank you.
MARTIN: Just in case our listeners are wondering, we did reach out to the office of Congresswoman Barbara Lee. Shes the CBC chair. She declined to comment. We also reached out to Congressman Donald Payne, the newly elected chair of the CBC Foundation. Thats the groups philanthropic arm. And, Eric, I hope youll explain the difference between the two. He said he was unavailable to join us today, but he expressed some interest in speaking to us at a later time.
So first, Eric, tell us, whats the difference between the Congressional Black Caucus and the Black Caucus Foundation?
Mr. LIPTON: Well, Congress has a couple of hundred different caucuses. They represent all kinds of different interest groups. And the Congressional Black Caucus, at its core, is essentially a group of African-American members of Congress, black members of Congress who have a common interest in certain issues that have joined together to pursue their agenda.
The Congressional Black Caucus Foundation is a nonprofit group, which raises monies from donations and then has programs that it uses that money for.
MARTIN: Well, so is there anything wrong with that?
Mr. LIPTON: No. I mean, no one has suggested anything illegal that the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation or any of the affiliates of the CBC is doing. The question thats been raised is that there are limitations as to how much money you can give as a contribution to an elected member of Congress.
But theres no limit on how much a corporation or, you know, a political action committee or a lobbyist can give to the foundation and to the charity. And so, they can give checks as high as $500,000 at a time and perhaps through that contribution influence the member of Congress.
MARTIN: How did the caucus respond to or members of the caucus respond when you sought comment from them about this? What did they say?
Mr. LIPTON: Well, Barbara Lee, we spoke with and she said that we, as a caucus, are not influenced in any way by the contributions that we get through the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. We are unbought, essentially, was her point.
MARTIN: As we mentioned, we tried to get members of the caucus to participate in this conversation. They did not, but they sent a statement, which well also post on our Web site. It says that the Congressional Black Caucus has never controlled the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus do not and have never comprised a majority of the directors of the CBCF or the executive committee.
And they say that the CBCF makes no expenditures that directly benefit any elected official nor are its funds used to elect or defeat any political candidate. So, thats what their perspective on that. What - do you have any comment about that?
Mr. LIPTON: Thats true. I mean, the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, which is the biggest entity in terms of budget of the four different entities that the Congressional Black Caucus it gets so confusing but then it operates. I mean, it is a legally distinct organization. But the chairman of the board of the Congressional Black Caucus, Donald Payne, is a member of Congress. And it definitely is influenced by, you know, the direction of the members of Congress.
Barbara Lee is quite active in the group. All the members are, you know, they're essential to its operation. Their name is a part of its name and they frequently have joint events. And when contributions are made to the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation - the director herself said this they're made in an effort to influence members of Congress. And the companies that make those contributions know that they are giving to the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. So theres clearly a relationship. They are legally distinct though. That is correct.
MARTIN: And just finally, Eric, because I understand you have to catch a plane, so were going to let you go. As you pointed out, there are hundreds of caucuses in Congress, a strong lobbyist presence on the Hill. There are former members of the caucus who are now lobbyists as there are sort of former members of every other group that are now lobbyists and working for big companies. Is there something that the caucus is doing in this regard that is unusual?
Mr. LIPTON: Well, what distinguishes the Congressional Black Caucus is that there is no other organization, the club of members of Congress, that has an affiliated nonprofit that collects anywhere near the amount of money that the Congressional Black Caucus does for major corporations. There is a Hispanic caucus that has a foundation. It doesnt get anywhere near as much money.
So the amount of money that is coming in corporate donations to the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation is quite significant. So, some see this as a way to circumvent the campaign finance laws. Now, its true that the money is not used to benefit the political campaigns of any of the caucus members, but it does promote their interest, the events they have or serve as a platform that promote the interest of the individual members at times.
And the other, you know, issue that was raised as we worked on this story was that there are some who believe that they accept contributions from companies that have vested interest in Washington that arent necessarily consistent with the interest of the CBC itself, such as tobacco companies, alcohol companies, Internet poker, rent-to-own companies. And that at times it appears that the contributions - as these interest groups make contributions - that they get the ear of the members of Congress and sometimes even their votes.
MARTIN: Is that - and that would have to be the final question - is there any evidence that these contributions affect their representation of their constituents in a manner that is inconsistent with the stated interests of their constituents? Is there any evidence that these contributions have affected their representation?
Mr. LIPTON: Well, the one case that we focused on the most was started with the rent-to-own industry and, for example, Maxine Waters had been quite adamant in seeking regulation a number of years back that would restrict them. But now the rent-to-own industry has been making contributions to the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation and the individual charities of CBC members. And it has gotten 13, I think it is, members of the CBC to cosponsor legislation that would protect the industry essentially.
And so, it appears as if theyve won some votes. Danny Davis first supported Maxine Waters proposal. Now hes on the industrys side. And hes a member of the Congressional Black Caucus. Theyve made contributions to the job training side thats named after him. So in that case, it looks like it may have had an affect.
MARTIN: Eric Lipton is domestic correspondent for the New York Times in the Washington bureau. We will have a link to the piece that he wrote so that you can read it in its entirety. He was kind enough to join us on the phone as hes rushing to catch a plane. Eric, we thank you for that.
Mr. LIPTON: Thank you very much.
MARTIN: For additional perspective, we want to turn now to Pam Gentry. Shes senior political analyst for BET, Black Entertainment Television. Shes here with me in our Washington, D.C. studio.
Pam Gentry, how - I know that the piece is just out, but have you had a chance to talk to members of the caucus? How are they responding to this attention?
Ms. GENTRY: Well, I think its a combination of things, and theyre getting very accustomed to the attention because what has happened is that the shift has come to them because they are in positions of power. I mean, right now they hold some of the top chairmanships in the Congress. And what really intrigues me about this story is that the fact that theyre getting this attention is because now they are getting this money.
There are other members of Congress who have gotten this type of money and have had these kinds of relationships, whether it was through a foundation that was separate, a separate entity from them as an individual, or even foundations that were named after them. You know, lobbyists lobby and lobbyists give money and this is the way Washington works. He made a very good point that theyre not doing anything wrong and they havent done anything illegal and they are not doing anything other members arent doing.
What they are doing though is that they are an organized group of 41, sometimes 42 members that have a - I dont want to say a block vote - because to be honest, they dont all agree on anything. I mean, I really think its interesting that a connection can be made that you can get all of the Congressional Black Caucus to agree on one particular issue and that if you give money to, quote, "the foundation," it will influence their vote. I dont really see that.
But theyre not happy about this interpretation, because their main issue -from the foundation, are their scholarship programs, their internships, and their fellowships. If those dont happen, there will be fewer African-Americans to ever see the light of day in Washington, D.C.
MARTIN: The point that the piece makes though is that they spend more on catering for their legislative weekend than they spend on any of these scholarship programs.
Now, in their statement to us, their spokesperson, which is again, well have it on our Web site - their spokesperson says that the catering number which is some $700,000 covers, you know, myriad events over the course of the weekend, you know, coffees and dinner. Its a number of events throughout the weekend, where food is offered. But the argument that the piece makes is that the amount of money that they spend on scholarships is actually rather modest given how much money that theyre raising.
Ms. GENTRY: Theyre showing in their annual report, I think, of 2008 that they hit about $650,000 in either scholarships, fellowships or internships. They paid for the students to come to Washington. They give them room and board, health insurance and a stipend.
Now, thats important simply because the opportunities for African-Americans to come and work on Capitol Hill, usually coming from their districts, are not coming from families who can afford for their children to come here and volunteer in those positions.
MARTIN: No, I understand that...
Ms. GENTRY: So...
MARTIN: ...but theyre saying that they spend $650,000 in one year.
Ms. GENTRY: And I think the catering bill was like $700,000.
MARTIN: Was $700,000, but theyre also saying that between 2004 and 2008, they raised $55 million. And so, it seems like a rather paltry amount. I think thats the implication.
Ms. GENTRY: You know, I think that when you look at how the money is being parceled that anyone could deem some criticism of that. Im not sure exactly how much of it was going for it. For instance, they talked about the golf events and things like that. I think those were actually part of tax.
MARTIN: And retiring the mortgage, and retiring the mortgage on their building, you can argue whether thats an important expenditure. And Im sure people will have different views on that.
I think the other dissonance here is that and this is an argument that African-Americans on the progressive left have argued that the CBC is in fact misnamed. They are right now an all-Democratic caucus. That they really dont have a distinct identity in terms of responding to the needs of African-Americans per se.
Ms. GENTRY: I dont think thats a fair criticism, and Im sure they would probably not agree. And the reason is right now they are probably the biggest voice in town for that community.
MARTIN: So, Pam, overall, youre saying, in part, this is part of the growing pains?
Ms. GENTRY: There are two things. Its the growing pains of having influence. Its the growing pains of having the power and having these positions that they are now of value to the (unintelligible) parties. And so, they are coming forward to say we want your ear, we want to pay attention to you.
You have to realize, when they started, there were 20 members and over 400 members in Congress. They werent probably that important. But, I mean, now theyre up to 42. Those are 42 votes. If youre a lobbying organization, one or two can make a difference. And so, heres a group of people that are elected officials that they are trying to go after.
MARTIN: Pamela Gentry is a senior political analyst for BET. She was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studio.
Previously, we were joined by Eric Lipton. Hes a domestic correspondent for the New York Times Washington bureau. Hes co-author of the piece published by the New York Times that examines the fundraising by the Congressional Black Caucus and the CBC Foundation. He joined us by phone.
Well have a link to the piece itself and the response that a spokesperson for the CBC Foundation gave us. Well have all that on our Web site. Just go to npr.org, click on programs, then on TELL ME MORE.
Pam, thank you so much.
Ms. GENTRY: Always a pleasure.