With Black Caucus' Power Comes Scrutiny
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
The Congressional Black Caucus has never been more powerful. Four House committees and 18 subcommittees are chaired by CBC members. The House majority whip, Jim Clyburn, is a longtime member of the caucus. And then, of course, there's the president. All this is turning the CBC's annual conference in Washington, D.C., this week into a celebration.
But as NPR's Andrea Seabrook reports, increased power comes with increased scrutiny.
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ANDREA SEABROOK: Last night, the Smithsonian Museum of African Art was filled with a glittering crowd of the influential and black. Informal suits and dresses, some in African print wraps and tunics, the politically connected chatter over hors d'oeuvres and a traditional drummer. This is the Congressional Black Caucus chairwoman's reception, invitation only.
And that chairwoman is California's Barbara Lee.
Representative BARBARA LEE (Democrat, California; Chairwoman, Congressional Black Caucus): Well, I'll tell you, we are just so delighted that one of our former members of the Congressional Black Caucus, of course, is the president of the United States of America.
SEABROOK: Lee is talking about the unprecedented power the CBC has these days. But she's quick to say that it's only worth having if it's put to good use.
The Black Caucus was formed in 1971, when only a handful of African-Americans were in Congress, 13. That's more than tripled today with 42 members. They're all Democrats and they've long been called by their party the Conscience of the Congress.
Rep. LEE: Being the conscience of the Congress means that those who have never had a voice before in the political process have 42 members who are working on their behalf to have a voice.
SEABROOK: Poverty, HIV and AIDS, genocide in Sudan's Darfur region, failing public education, these are at the top of the CBC's agenda, says California's Maxine Waters.
Representative MAXINE WATERS (Democrat, California; Chairwoman, House Financial Services Subcommittee on Housing and Community Opportunity): We do feel that this is a real opportunity for us to get things done that we have had on the shelf for so long.
SEABROOK: Waters chairs the Housing Subcommittee of the powerful Financial Services Committee. She's been at the forefront of efforts to help people at risk of losing their homes to bank foreclosure. The CBC is discovering that more power also comes with more scrutiny. Waters came under investigation by the House Ethics Committee when it was discovered that her husband was on the board of a bank that received $12 million in bailout funds.
Waters didn't disclose her husband's connection to the bank at the time her committee was writing the bailout bill.
Rep. WATERS: It's a part of what we confront. When we're in this business, we do a lot of disclosure. We are open to all of the press and everybody who can look at us, and we're in a fishbowl and that's okay. As long as you're confident that you're not doing anything wrong, you can handle it.
SEABROOK: Another CBC member, New York's Charlie Rangel, is under investigation for not disclosing all of his income and assets. He says he's done nothing wrong but he was forced to pay back taxes.
And then there's Illinois' Jesse Jackson Jr. He's caught up in a corruption case surrounding the state's impeached government Rod Blagojevich. And several more members have had allegations made against them to the House Ethics Committee.
The CBC has complained for years that it's under a stronger magnifying glass than any other group in Congress. The caucus has a new task force looking into it. But it's no surprise to Mikhail Hawkins(ph), a lawyer attending this week's conference.
Mr. MIKHAIL HAWKINS (Lawyer): There've been plenty of white congressmen that have also engaged in some type of malfeasance. But the way that race works in this country, whenever something confirms someone's stereotype, then, of course, in their own minds, it's sort of perpetuated and they're going to over generalize about it.
SEABROOK: But it's certainly not slowing down this party.
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SEABROOK: Across town, the legendary Go-Go artist Chuck Brown rules a hotel banquet room packed full of young, excited professionals, like Cheryl Curtis(ph).
Ms. CHERYL CURTIS: So we were at a soiree and it wasn't quite as funky as this. And now, we're over here getting a little funky.
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SEABROOK: Curtis repeats what many, many others here say, having new political power is not the goal itself.
Ms. CURTIS: There's a lot that needs to be done. And so I'm hoping that not only will people get excited, but go home and spring to action. So I'm really excited about it.
SEABROOK: Time to get to work, Curtis says, in a new political era for the Congressional Black Caucus.
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SEABROOK: Andrea Seabrook, NPR News, Washington.
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