By the 1990s, the CBC could count some legislative victories, including the adoption of a federal holiday celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. The CBC also championed the end of apartheid, introducing legislation to combat it 13 years before Congress finally adopted a trade embargo against South Africa in 1986.
“Many of us went to South Africa, encouraging people there to participate in the election — to become unified,” says Rep. John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat who was among the Southerners who came to Congress in the 1980s.
Tangible accomplishments aside, the caucus was increasingly playing a symbolic role that many lawmakers describe as the “conscience of the Congress.” Although its alternative budgets were largely ignored and many of its bills stalled, the CBC always reminded other Members of how their actions might affect, in the parlance of the church, “the least among them.”
The organization was also developing serious clout within the Democratic Party: Its blessing became a requirement for Democrats seeking leadership positions. “I don’t know that you’d want to win a position without their support,” says Rep. Steny Hoyer (Md.), the chamber’s second-ranking Democrat. “You not only need them in terms of numbers, but you need the intellect, the perspective, the experience they bring to the discussion.”
Scandal and a New President
By 2010, however, the caucus found its relationship with Democratic leaders strained after a series of ethics scandals involving CBC members. Eight of them, including veterans such as Rangel and Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), had come under scrutiny by the newly created Office of Congressional Ethics.
The Ethics Committee eventually found Rangel had broken 11 ethics rules, including failing to pay taxes on some income. The debacle cost him his chairmanship of the Ways and Means Committee and ended with his censure on the House floor.
Meanwhile, the CBC’s foundation was also making the wrong kind of news. CBC member Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) had doled out foundation scholarships to her grandchildren and the children of a top staffer.
Some CBC members complained that black Members were more likely to be called out for their missteps than their white counterparts were.
Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, the current CBC chairman, says he doesn’t see race as a motivating factor, but many black voters do. Still, the Missouri Democrat insists that the number of CBC members with ethical woes is no reflection on the organization.
“There are very few of us who get ethics charges out of 43, but because we are a caucus and we all are the same color, it draws attention,” he says. “Far more white folk have been ethically challenged in the last 10 years than black.”
Even as some caucus members saw the vestiges of racism in the ethics charges, the election of President Barack Obama in 2008 was a cause for celebration of how far African-American political leadership had come. Obama had belonged to the organization during his Senate tenure, and his ascension to the highest office was a feat many of the original 13 members might scarcely have dreamed about.
But the relationship between the president and his alma mater hasn’t always been smooth. Much of the friction relates to the economic climate, which pits the White House’s deficit-trimming zeal against CBC members who say their constituents have been hardest hit by high unemployment rates and the housing downturn.
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