In the new Congress which convened last week members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) will have more power than they have ever had in the history of the United States.
In a Democratically-controlled House of Representatives blacks will hold an unprecedented level influence. Before, during the Republican-controlled House, not a single African-American chaired a committee or held a position of leadership.
With a newly-empowered Democratic majority there will now be five CBC members chairing important committees.
In addition two CBC members, Majority Whip James Clyburn (S.C.) and Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.), are in the top rungs of the House Democratic leadership. Jeffries is also being viewed as a possible future Speaker of the House, succeeding Nancy Pelosi when she retires.
But leadership positions are only a small part of the total influence members of the CBC now exert within the Democratic caucus of Congress.
There are now 55 members of the Black Caucus, including two U.S. Senators, Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Kamala Harris (D-Calif.). It also includes two nonvoting delegates to Congress.
The total of 55 is up from the previous record of 49, from the last Congress.
As chairman of the Oversight and Reform Committee Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) will be in the public eye as he leads a barrage of investigations into the corruption of members of the Trump administration.
As chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) will hold hearings on very important — and controversial — immigration, election security and counterterrorism issues.
As chairman of the Education and Labor Committee Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) will have authority over such hot-button progressive topics as college affordability, the minimum wage and government child care policies.
Perhaps more importantly, two female CBC members will now chair important committees.
As chairman of the Financial Services Committee, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) will lead oversight of Wall Street and the nation’s banks.
As chairman of the Science, Space and Technology Committee, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) will oversee the budget for the nation’s enormous science and space programs.
They will be both the first women and the first African-Americans to chair their respective committees.
Over the past eight years of Republican rule the House GOP committee chair roster had almost no racial diversity.
But with a new Democratic majority things will be different.
“The Republican Party needs to understand that the makeup of the United States has changed,” CBC Chairwoman Karen Bass (D-Calif.) said. “The Republican side of the aisle looks like the America of the past.”
Diversity in committee leadership is already leading to changes in policies and priorities of lawmaking.
Waters said that she plans to create a Financial Services subcommittee specifically focused on diversity and inclusion.
“We believe that not only are we going to be able to define very clearly for everybody where there is discrimination but also have recommendations and try to work with all of the entities that are involved to eliminate it,” Waters said in an interview.
Last year she challenged Republicans’ move to repeal a consumer protection agency’s guidance that would ensure lenders couldn’t charge minorities more for auto loans.
“I am more offended as an African-American woman than you will ever be,” Waters told Rep. Mike Kelly (R-Pa.) in a highly-charged House floor debate on the topic.
Because of her outspokenness and her willingness to stand up to Trump, Waters already has a national following.
She is promising to make headlines as chair of her committee, as she has said she will investigate Deutsche Bank’s financial records of President Trump and the Trump administration’s efforts to weaken the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
CBC members have continually gained more and more influence over the years in the Democratic caucus, and in Congress. The significance has not been lost on CBC members, some of whom are the descendants of slaves.
The power CBC members hold now, Rep. Thompson of Mississippi said, is “a sign that we’ve come a long way from the belly of ships to the No. 3 person of the House of Representatives and those chairmanships.”
I am a lifelong Democrat with a passion for social justice and progressive issues. I have degrees in writing, economics and law from the University of Iowa.