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Congressional Black Caucus: A bastion of seniority
By: John Bresnahan March 2, 2014
When Democratic Rep. John Conyers — only the second African-American elected to Congress from Michigan — came to Capitol Hill in 1965, he had loads of free time on his hands. Conyers was appointed to the House Judiciary Committee, the first black lawmaker in the panel’s history. But there wasn’t much for Conyers to do as a junior member of the committee, so, for a while, he hosted a jazz show on a Washington radio station.
A lot has changed since then. If the 84-year-old Conyers wins reelection in November to a 26th term — as expected — he will become the dean of the House, the most senior member by length of service, replacing his onetime boss and Democratic icon, retiring Rep. John Dingell of Michigan.
Conyers and other African-American lawmakers, in fact, belong to one of the few remaining bastions of incumbency — the Congressional Black Caucus. Under current projections, the 114th Congress will include roughly 70 members who have been in the House for 20 years or more. One-fifth of those veteran lawmakers — 14 — will be black Democrats, including the two longest-serving members of the House, Conyers and Rep. Charles Rangel of New York. Rangel was first elected in 1970.
Thanks to that seniority, CBC members could end up as top Democrat on at least seven major committees next year, including Education and the Workforce; Financial Services; Homeland Security; Judiciary; Oversight and Government Reform; Science, Space and Technology; and Veterans’ Affairs.
Another CBC member, Rep. David Scott of Georgia, could be in line for the top Democratic post on the Agriculture Committee, although it appears Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), the current ranking member, may run for another term despite being on retirement watch for months, according to a recent news report. (PHOTOS: 10 must-watch House races in 2014)
Two Hispanic Democrats — Reps. Linda Sánchez of California and Nydia Velázquez of New York — are the ranking members on the Ethics and Small Business committees, respectively.
Across the aisle, of the 21 House Republicans who chair major committees, all but one is a white male. Michigan Rep. Candice Miller chairs the House Administration Committee.
“Before Barack Obama, if you were elected to Congress, it was like being a king,” said a House Democrat, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “African-Americans weren’t elected as senator or governor. So you had to be mayor or a [House] member. That was the pinnacle of power.”
The issue is even more critical in recent weeks as a number of high-profile Democrats, including Dingell, Reps. Henry Waxman and George Miller of California, retire, opening up ranking member posts on the Energy and Commerce and Education and the Workforce committees. CBC members are watching these races closely, especially since Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) came out for her close friend, Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) for the Energy and Commerce spot, despite the fact that she is not the most senior Democrat on the panel.
“I heard that [Pelosi] buried the concept of seniority,” complained Rangel, one of the CBC’s co-founders. “Officially buried it.”
“For CBC members, the power is seniority,” added Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), first elected in 1998. “As committee assignments are doled out, seniority becomes very important. They stayed and played by the rules. They don’t want the rules to change when it’s now their turn to be in [charge], when you have real power and control of what’s going on.”
With Democrats in the minority, the CBC’s power is limited, as it is for all House Democrats. The end of spending earmarks and tight federal budgets also makes it harder to bring home pork for the district.
Yet having so many veteran lawmakers in key posts gives the CBC — which as a group has never been afraid of “transactional politics,” cutting deals to help themselves or their constituents — an opportunity to be heard on nearly every issue.
Why black lawmakers have been able to stay in office is a matter of intense speculation among CBC members themselves. The Republican revolution of 1994, plus the huge GOP wave in 2010, ended the careers of many longtime Democrats, especially in the South. Big Democratic years in 2006 and 2008 meant the same fate for Northeastern Republicans, now an endangered species.
But most African-American lawmakers in the House hail from urban areas or “majority-minority” districts created under the Voting Rights Act, shielding them from those Republican waves.
And the power of incumbency in these districts — as it is in every House district or Senate seat — is a powerful weapon. Once someone gets in office, it’s pretty hard to get them out, especially in a majority-minority district. In those cases, since all CBC members are Democrats, the Democratic primary is really the election that matters. Election Day is really just a formal conclusion for a race that’s already decided.
Rangel pointed out: “When you win the Democratic primary, you win the election.”
Several CBC members suggested their constituents see incumbency as a valuable resource, even if “incumbent” is a dirty word in other districts.
“Traditionally, seniority meant influence,” said Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, the third highest-ranking House Democrat. “These districts rely heavily on influence here in Congress.”
“The reward for us is seniority. Make no bones about it — I believe in the seniority system, and it should remain,” said Rep. Lacy Clay (D-Mo.). “That’s why Dingell was so powerful. He’s been here for almost 60 years, and his constituents knew that.”
Clay added: “I give the voting public a lot of credit. They know seniority means something!” Clyburn also noted the 1982 revisions to the Voting Rights Act, which came into play after the 1990 census and resulted in redistricting during the 1992 election, had a huge impact on the number of black lawmakers in Congress. Thanks to an “effects” test instituted after the 1982 VRA revision — which gave the Justice Department and federal judges a bigger say on the makeup of districts — the number of African-Americans in Congress soared, and Latinos made big gains, as well. “The Voting Rights Act expanded the field for minorities, as it should have,” Clyburn said. “The Congressional Black Caucus increased by 65 percent that year.”
Clyburn and Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio), the CBC chairwoman, said the group would meet soon to make sure its members don’t get shut out of ranking member posts in the next Congress.
Other black lawmakers said their districts — traditionally less affluent than many of the districts represented by white lawmakers — made fundraising more difficult. This gave incumbents a huge financial edge and makes the mountain that much tougher to climb for challengers. In addition, there are fewer wealthy constituents in these districts who will fund their own challenge to unseat an incumbent, these lawmakers said.
“There’s not as many self-funders,” Clay said. “I raise money in $100 clips. I don’t have that many constituents who can write me $1,000 or $2,600 checks.”
And there is another, less pleasant factor to consider, suggested some longtime CBC members. According to these lawmakers, K Street lobbying firms didn’t like to hire black members, or at least didn’t woo them in the way they did their white colleagues. That gave black lawmakers less of an economic incentive to leave Congress.
“Opportunities don’t exist as often for African-Americans in the lobbying field, so we stay a little longer,” said Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.), a member of the Class of ’92. “That has changed in the last decade, and you’re beginning to see African-American members leave. That had not happened years ago, so we had reached an apex when we got here.”
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