Black Congressional Leaders Prep For Annual Conference Amid Scrutiny

The Congressional Black Caucus prepares to kick off its 40th anniversary with events that acknowledge progress and disparities among their constituents. But some caucus members have their own challenges ahead of upcoming elections, including ethics scandals and possibly the loss of committee chairmanships if Democrats lose the House. Host Michel Martin speaks with Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, a Democrat from Missouri, and Rep. James Clyburn, House Majority Whip and Democrat from South Carolina.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

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

The Congressional Black Caucus opens its 40th annual conference tomorrow here in Washington, D.C. With 42 members, that's up from 13 at its founding, and includes on senator. All are Democrats. Over the past few years, the caucus has achieved unprecedented visibility and influence. Its members populate some top leadership posts. But it is also facing some serious challenges, including ethics scandals and the vulnerability of Democrats across the legislative spectrum in the midterm elections.

We wanted to know more about this, so we've called James Clyburn, Majority Whip in the U.S. House of Representatives. He's in the number three leadership post in the House. Congressman Clyburn represents South Carolina's 6th District. Also with us is the CBC's first vice chairman, Emanuel Cleaver. He's a Democrat from Kansas City, Missouri. Welcome to you both and thank you so much for joining us.

Representative JAMES CLYBURN (Democrat, South Carolina): Well, thank you so much for having us.

Representative EMANUEL CLEAVER (Democrat, Missouri): It's good to be here.

MARTIN: Congressman Clyburn, if I would just ask, you know, overall, what is the mood among members now as you see the polls indicate the Democrats are under - who are the majority of course, in both houses are under some significant stress, owing to a number of issues. So what's the mood among the members?

Rep. CLYBURN: Well, I've been traveling the country quite a bit. And, in fact, I am just getting back into Washington. Just left Illinois. Before that I was in Arizona. I've been to Colorado, Texas, Georgia, Louisiana. And Democrats are very, very upbeat.

Now, one of the things we are very aware of, and that is that history tells us that the Democrats are more prone to face up to the issues confronting the country than our Republican friends. They tend to pretend things don't exist. We know that people have been hurting for health care. We know that we have us a serious energy problem in this country. We know that we are involved in two wars and would not be there but for energy issues. And we are confronting those issues.

President Obama inherited an economy that was hemorrhaging 750,000 jobs a month. We averaged that for the last three months of the Bush administration. He is confronting that. He has stopped the hemorrhaging. We are now growing jobs in the private sector. When you do big things, you tend to have these kinds of second guesses taking place by the American people.

Lyndon Johnson told us when he signed the Voting Rights Act back in 1965, one of the biggest things that ever happened to African-American voters in this country that he was signing away his party's dominance in the South by doing that. But it was the right thing to do. When he got Social Security...

MARTIN: Well, let me just stop you there. Mr. Cleaver, I haven't forgotten about you. But Mr. Clyburn, if I could just press you on this point: If the Democrats lose the House, first of all, there will be caucus members who will lose leadership positions that they have only just now attained, including John Conyers who chairs the Judiciary Committee, Bennie Thompson, who chairs Homeland Security, Ed Towns, who chairs the Oversight Committee. So that on a personal level these are individuals who have achieved leadership positions, which they will lose.

But also from a policy perspective, I mean African-Americans who are disproportionately suffering from unemployment, 16 percent unemployment rate among African-Americans versus over 9 percent overall. Of course the health care overall. And if it is the case that Democrats lose the House in part because people don't agree with the president's actions or the public officials or the federal government - these federal officials' actions on these areas that disproportionately affect African-Americans. What does that say?

Rep. CLYBURN: Well, it says that we may be on the cutting edge. Look, I don't think we're going to lose the House. As I said, our people are very upbeat. I just got full reports this morning on district by district stuff, and our members are doing very well district by district. These generics, which last week say we were 10 points down, this week they're saying we're even 46/46. So when you're doing generics, that's one thing.

And when you're asking people to compare your congressperson to the challenger, we get a different result. And so I'm very comfortable at where we are. But I don't believe that the voters would think very kindly of me if I say I'm not going to do anything about health care. I'm not going to do anything about educating our children because I may lose my leadership position. That is not a very good position to be in. We must do what is necessary to move our country forward. And if we pay a price for doing that, so (unintelligible) it'd be.

MARTIN: Okay. Mr. Cleaver, let's back up just a bit. Why was the CBC founded to begin with?

Rep. CLEAVER: Well, the CBC was founded because we had 13 individuals who had come to the conclusion that they all had similar issues in their home districts. Additionally they could look at each other and see that there were some visible similarities and they thought that if they could come together and if they could work together, that they could make a much more significant impact on legislation.

And it turned out to be absolutely correct. The black caucus during the founding days was at the height of the modern-day Civil Rights Movement. And so, the black caucus also believed that together that they could push with allies that each of them could bring on. Civil rights legislation that would actually change the entire fabric of American life. And it's not dramatically different today.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Congressman Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri and Congressman James Clyburn, the House Majority Whip, and we're talking about the Congressional Black Caucus' 40th annual conference, which opens tomorrow. We're also talking about just the general atmosphere in this midterm election cycle.

And Congressman Cleaver, a similar question that I asked Congressman Clyburn, which is that we know that unemployment disproportionately affects African-Americans, that being underinsured or uninsured disproportionately affects African-Americans as well as other minorities. And there are those who kind of look at these numbers and they will say, you know, there is an African-American president. The CBC is at unprecedented numbers and some would argue influence. And yet with these ongoing challenges, how effective is it really as a caucus if people who achieve this level of prominence and influence can't get some headway here, what benefit is this caucus to its constituents? What would you say to that?

Rep. CLEAVER: I would say that the Congressional Black Caucus helps to define the United States of America. We are a multiracial society. We have not resolved all of the challenges related to race. But we believe that we can push ahead and do so in a manner that will cause Americans of goodwill to say, you know, what they're doing is good.

For example, without a Congressional Black Caucus, Section 342, the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Bill would never have been a part...

MARTIN: And what is that?

Rep. CLEAVER: It's the Office of Minority and Women Inclusion, arguably the best part of the bill. If you look at the fact that the GEO(ph) reports that Latinos make up 3 percent, African-Americans 2.8 percent, I believe, compared to 64 percent of whites in financial services jobs on Wall Street, you know that there is still a problem in our country when we have an elite industry that virtually excludes none of white males.

And because of the Congressional Black Caucus, we were able to get 342, the Office of Minority and Women Inclusion, into that legislation. And we've got to continue to push. Let me just add quickly, the problems we have today are serious. The long march toward a society that ignores race will eventually arrive at its destination. But today, there's still a lot of people marching out of step and that's where the CBC comes in.

MARTIN: I do need to ask, Mr. Cleaver, if you don't mind, I have to ask you about these ethics challenges that have befallen a number of members of the caucus - in fact, some of its more prominent members: Charlie Rangel, Eddie Bernice Johnson, Maxine Waters. Of course these members all have their individual response. But there are those who look at that and say, well, what does that say that so many of these active ethics investigations are connected to members of the black caucus. What does that say, in your view?

Rep. CLEAVER: Well, it could say a number of things. Some of them are not very good for the country. But let me just say this - the new ethics bill, which I voted for, has created in some instances a body which allows people to walk in off the street and file charges against their political enemies, and I think some of this is going to happen when you have this open kind of ethics process.

However, you know, ethical lapses is not anything that is relegated to skin color. We've got a lot of people who have faced ethical charges. One of the things I'm disappointed in is at some - I'm very familiar with the Maxine Waters charge - I won't get into it - but I'm very familiar with it and very upset by it. But on the other hand, I think, you know, CBC members have to be careful, maybe even more careful than other members, because of what I said earlier about, you know, people trying to do something to their political image(ph).

But also, I think we need to keep in mind that Charlie Rangel has begged for a hearing before the House, and Republicans are denying him that opportunity because they want to use that as a reason for voting for Republicans in November. And this is a human being, a man who's done enormous service to the United States of America.

MARTIN: A final thought from you, Mr. Clyburn, if we would, and I would like to ask - there are those who would look at your position - you're the Majority Whip, one of the top ranking leaders in the House. They look at Barack Obama, the president of the United States, they look at other people who have achieved levels of influence, just doing their jobs - and that does occasion the question for some of why is there still a need for a caucus. So what would you say to that?

Rep. CLYBURN: Well, that's almost like saying because you've got the Voting Rights Act of 1965, you no longer need the NAACP. Or you've got the federal(ph) housing law, so then you don't need any kind of oversight of HUD. The fact of the matter is that the Congressional Black Caucus meets weekly to discuss issues that may be confronting various communities because of skin color.

And I live in the South. And I can tell you, the NAACP is very much needed. Congressional Black Caucus is very much needed to develop a cohesive coordinated approach to trying to resolve the issues. So long as there is a differential of treatment in this country based upon skin color, there will need to be a coordinated effort on the part of those who happen to be African-American or Hispanic, whatever it might be.

MARTIN: James Clyburn is the Majority Whip in the United States House of Representatives. He represents South Carolina's 6th District. He joined us from his office there.

Emanuel Cleaver represents the 5th District of Missouri in the House of Representatives. He joined us on the phone from his office there. I thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Rep. CLEAVER: Good to be with you.

Rep. CLYBURN: Thank you so much for having us.

MARTIN: And our best wishes for a successful conference.

Rep. CLEAVER: Thank you.

Rep. CLYBURN: Thank you.

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