The Congressional Black Caucus is still getting up and running for the 114th Congress — it announced its staff Monday — but its new chairman sees an urgency for an organization that has long been known to represent the interests of minorities and the poor.
“We have a traditional role and that is to be the conscience of the Congress,” Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C., told CQ Roll Call on Feb. 20. “We’ve been using ‘conscience of the Congress’ as our brand, if you will, since our founding. But we’ve got to do more than that because black America is in a state of emergency right now.”
Butterfield noted that 1 in 4 black families — and 1 in 3 black children — live in poverty, while the unemployment rate for African-Americans is roughly double that for whites.
“We cannot continue down this path,” the North Carolina Democrat said. “We have to be assertive. We have to be more aggressive.”
Asked about the Democratic Party's new messaging focus on the middle class, Butterfield said that was a concern he had raised with Democratic leadership.
“We cannot forget that so many of our families are not middle class,” he said.
That new focus — obsession almost — on the middle class has many in the CBC concerned their constituencies may be left behind.
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During the Democratic retreat in Philadelphia at the end of January, Butterfield’s predecessor at the CBC, Marcia L. Fudge of Ohio, told CQ Roll Call she had some apprehension about the party’s new message.
"I've always said that, as a party, we don't talk enough about the poor," Fudge said. "I do believe we need to talk more about how we lift people out of poverty."
Fudge added that, while the middle class is important, she wouldn't call it the middle class. "You're talking about working families. I don't believe in classes," she said. "But I certainly do believe that we need to spend some time and attention on getting people out of poverty."
That was a message Butterfield seemed to echo on Feb. 20.
Butterfield voiced concerns over the Democrats' messaging.(Tom Williams/Roll Call File Photo)
“I think most Americans would want to provide a safety net for those in poverty,” Butterfield said. “I think most Americans want to support their communities.”
Butterfield said that meant not cutting food stamps — “food security leads to national security” — and he mentioned raising the minimum wage. Butterfield praised Wal-Mart’s recent decision to bring their minimum wage to $10 per hour, saying he hoped other sectors of the economy would follow suit, and he noted that the economy’s recovery had not touched many Americans.
“So many people that we represent have been left behind,” Butterfield said.
On the topic of his new staff, Butterfield said he wished he had 16 staff members for the CBC, not just four. He noted before Newt Gingrich became speaker in 1994, caucuses used to receive public funding for staff. Now individual members contribute money to individual organizations to pay personnel salary.
While Butterfield said it would be nice if congressional leaders made changes to how caucuses were funded — “and I know some Republicans who feel the same way” — he said that was not “foremost” on the CBC agenda.
“We can make it with the budget we have,” he said. “We could do more if we had more.”
Overall, Butterfield said his vision for the CBC was one of working with other Democratic caucuses — such as the Congressional Progressive Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus — and with Republicans. He specifically cited a criminal justice overhaul as an area of common ground with Republicans.
Butterfield also said he wanted to work with the White House to redirect federal dollars into what he called “persistent poverty communities.
“We’ve got to become very active, and we’ve got to have no permanent friends, no permanent enemies,” he said. “Only our interests are permanent.”
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