Black Caucus Series: Bennie Thompson

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As Democrats take control of Congress, an unprecedented number of key posts will be going to African-American lawmakers. In the first of a series on Congressional Black Caucus members, Farai Chideya speaks with Bennie Thompson (D-MS). Thompson lays out his agenda as the new chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.


From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

With pomp, circumstance and lots of women and men in oh-so tailored suits, the 110th Congress begins today. That means the Dems are in power, the Republicans are out, and new House Speaker Nancy Pelosi starts her 100-hour agenda. Plus, a slew of key post will go to African-American lawmakers.

After all, the Congress works with all members voting on key issues and through a series of powerful committees. And NEWS & NOTES is bringing you black lawmakers poised to lead Congress.

Next week we'll hear from New Jersey's Donald Payne, head of the House Subcommittee on Africa. We'll also hear from Kendrick Meek, one of the youngest faces in Congress and co-chair of Speaker Pelosi's 30-something working group.

But today, we've got Bennie Thompson. The Congressman represents Mississippi's 2nd district, and today he takes control of the powerful Homeland Security Committee. When I caught up with the congressman, he told me his colleagues have waited for this moment to come.

Representative BENNIE THOMPSON (Democrat, Mississippi): You will see in this 110th Congress African-American leadership like you've not seen before. The Congressional Black Caucus has paid its dues; they played by the rules. And it is a positive sign for the Democratic Party and Speaker Pelosi in that she did not try to change the rules just because African-Americans played by the rules. And I think what you will see under the leadership of Charlie Rangel at Ways and Means, John Conyers at Judiciary, and a number of others, an opportunity for African-Americans to prove not only that they can do a good job, but they care about America, too.

CHIDEYA: What should be the role of African-American congressmen and congresswomen at a time like this when civil rights has become a term that is often used about the past and not about the present, regardless of the fact that there are civil rights challenges today? Is there any kind of larger agenda that you think you and other African-Americans in Congress need to be pursuing?

Rep. THOMPSON: Well, I think what you will see by virtue that many of us will be in a room that, heretofore, was void of African-Americans. You will see a broader approach to all facets of policymaking. It will be inclusion. It will be an opportunity for people of color to secure contractual opportunities from a business perspective.

But it will help this country represent itself. And by the Congressional Black Caucus being in the room, you can be virtually be assured there will be advocate to put the policy of inclusion in addition to just good public policy.

CHIDEYA: So what is your agenda? The Democrats have a 100-hour agenda, what is your agenda going forward?

Rep. THOMPSON: Well, I think part of our 100-hour agenda is to take care the unfinished business that was presented in the 9/11 report. There are issues with respect to interoperability, the ability of first responders to communicate with each other in time of emergency. There's the issue of border security. There's the issue of cargo security and screening. There's the issue of passenger cargo screening and security. There's real security issues. So there are number of issues that we plan to address as we go forward.

So, I think that it will be an exciting 100 hours, given that Speaker Pelosi has given us the task of coming up with what we all know are documented failures and taking care of business.

CHIDEYA: How do you balance liberty and security? Many groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, have said that the president has sacrificed liberty for security, gone too far in terms of issues like domestic wiretapping. Where do you stand on that issue?

Rep. THOMPSON: Well, you know, as one who came out of a civil rights movement, one who aspired upon as a college student because I was advocating certain constitutional rights. I take that very seriously. (Unintelligible) wiretapping should not be. We have a FISA court that was established for many of these situations.

So, I think you can see under this administration, in terms of democratic leadership, you will see people moving forward, protecting this country, but also protecting the rights and liberties of American citizens.

CHIDEYA: How are you going to deal, as part of Homeland Security, with the impact on the war on terror domestically? Are you going to take a look at issues like who gets screened on airlines? It's become a very touchy issue for Muslim-Americans. In the past, it's been a touchy issue for African-Americans. What about the domestic implications of what we're doing abroad?

Representative THOMPSON: Well, I think, as you know, part of our mission is to deal with the terrorist threat here on our soil. But it can't relegate itself to racial profiling or anything like that. We have to use sound science, the best technology in keeping this countries safe.

I think what we have to do is continue to train men and women who are charged with that responsibility, invest in the technology so that they can do the best job. But at the end of the day, it's a system that has to be maintained and has to have oversight. Not just to protect us from bad people, but also protect those individual rights and liberties that we talked about earlier.

So I'm excited about it. I see Speaker Pelosi and Congressman Hoyer, Congressman Jim Clyburn, in their leadership positions moving us in the right direction. I want the president to be a little more open to democratic ideals than in the past. And so if he's open, Democrats are open and we can secure America.

CHIDEYA: Speaking of securing America, you voted against a recent bill that will build a fence across hundreds of miles of southern border. What would you like to see done instead? And will the Democrats consider de-funding that project because it's a new Congress, it's a new year?

Rep. THOMPSON: Well, you know, we need first a border security plan. What we have is a piecemeal approach to a problem. We need the best minds to sit and review the entire northern and southern border and say here's the plan to secure the border. Just to legislate 300 miles of fencing in a particular area is not border security.

Border security would be a combination of physical barriers, as well as technological barriers, and men and women on the ground. We don't have that plan. So I think rather than this hodgepodge approach, we will charge the department with coming up with a plan for securing the entire borders, both our northern and southern, then we'll move forward to fund it.

Without a plan, it will just be piecemeal each year and we'll ultimately not be anymore secure than what we are now.

CHIDEYA: But what do you think about the idea of actually appropriating the money for this fence?

Rep. THOMPSON: Well -

CHIDEYA: Is that going to happen?

Rep. THOMPSON: Well, I voted against it and I would vote against it at this point simply because we don't have a plan. The border itself is some 1,800 miles, so why would we secure 300-400 miles and leave the rest unguarded, uncovered? I would prefer charging the department with coming up with that plan that would secure the entire border; and then let's form the plan.

CHIDEYA: What do you think of the Homeland Security Department, and what I mean by that is you are the head of the House Homeland Security Committee. Homeland Security amalgamated a whole bunch of other previous federal agencies, like the Border Patrol, like FEMA. Is this department workable? Is it able to do all the things that the government is asking it to do?

Rep. THOMPSON: Well, it's a new agency. It put 22 agencies that, historically, did not really communicate with each other. They're now in the Department of Homeland Security. What I would encourage the present secretary to do is take the leadership role necessary so that we can communicate better with each other. I have not been satisfied with how Secretary Chertoff has allowed things to communicate with not only members of Congress but the public at large.

So you will see Democrats force in the department not only to come up with plans but to communicate with the public on what is important and what the public needs to do to help secure America also.

CHIDEYA: What about this surge in Iraq, the idea, rather, that the president may propose in the coming weeks of sending more troops in the short term. Now this relates to your work not only in the general sense, but also because there is so many National Guard troops in Iraq that has limited the ability of National Guard troops to respond to U.S. events, perhaps even Hurricane Katrina.

Rep THOMPSON: Well, no question. We had 37 percent of the Mississippi National Guard deployed elsewhere when Katrina hit our Gulf Coast shores. So we felt the brunt of not having equipment, not having the Guardsmen available to help our citizens. So the president's support to this surge, in the minds of a lot of us, myself included, will not get us any closer to a resolution of this situation he put us in Iraq.

You know, we can expect a constant barrage of criticism from the public at large. What you saw in the November 7th election I'm firmly convinced was a public tired of an administration not coming up with a plan to get us out of it. And this notion of adding more troops is not a plan to get us out of this dilemma that we are in in Iraq.

And so I'm not optimistic about it, and I think what you will see at some point over the next month or two is Democratic leadership forcing the president to come forward with a measurable plan, more so than just sending more men and women in harm's away.

CHIDEYA: Congressman Thompson, thank you so much.

Rep. THOMPSON: Thank you for having me.

CHIDEYA: U.S. Congressman Bennie Thompson represents Mississippi's 2nd district. He is the new Democratic chair of the House Homeland Security Committee. Our series on rising stars in the Congressional Black Caucus will continue Monday with New Jersey's Donald Payne.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: Next, New Jersey gets ready to roll back the death penalty. Plus, the history in politics of paper dolls.

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