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2007-01-04

Despite Greater Prominence on Congressional Committees, African American Lawmakers Pressured to Curb Initiatives

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The new Congress will elevate more black lawmakers to positions of power than ever before–four African Americans are likely to head committees and up to 20 are expected to lead subcommittees. But black lawmakers are already facing pressure from the Democratic leadership to hold back on pushing an agenda sought by traditional party allies. We speak with Ron Walters, Director of the African American Leadership Institute at the University of Maryland and advisory chair to the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. [includes rush transcript]

The new Congress will elevate more black lawmakers to positions of power than ever before–four African Americans are likely to head committees and up to 20 are expected to lead subcommittees. Black lawmakers will have direct oversight on issues such as tax policy, homeland security and the legal system. In addition, the third-ranking House Democratic Leader — Representative James Clyburn is African American and the only black senator, Illinois’s Barack Obama, is a possible presidential candidate.

Longtime Democratic political consultant Donna Brazile, recently commented that "2007 will mark the first time in U.S. history that African Americans will have a prominent seat at the table in helping to shape public policy in our nation." But black lawmakers are already facing pressure from the Democratic leadership to hold back on pushing an agenda sought by traditional party allies. This includes creating a commission on reparations for slavery, enacting legislation to restore voting rights for convicted felons, prohibiting racial profiling by police and customs officers, increasing compensation paid to people displaced by Hurricane Katrina and laying the groundwork for impeachment proceedings against President Bush.

Yesterday, President Bush spoke about the new congress at a press conference. He urged Democrats to "set aside politics." President Bush speaking yesterday. Ron Walters joins us now from Washington D.C.

  • Ron Walters. Director of the African American Leadership Institute at the University of Maryland. He is author of many books, his most recent is titled "Freedom is not Enough: Black Voters, Black Candidates, and American Presidential Politics." He is also the chair of the advisory committee of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Yesterday, President Bush spoke about the new congress at a press conference. He urged Democrats to set aside politics.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: We’ve all been entrusted with public office at a momentous time in our nation’s history. And together we have important things to do. It’s time to set aside politics and focus on the future. I’ve been encouraged by the productive meetings that I’ve had with many of the new leaders of Congress, people from both parties. I want to thank them for coming down to the White House and talking to me about their ambitions and their goals for our country. I’m hopeful that Republicans and Democrats can find common ground to serve our folks, to do our jobs, to be constructive for our country.

AMY GOODMAN: President Bush, speaking yesterday. Ron Walters joins us now from Washington, D.C. He’s director of the African American Leadership Institute at the University of Maryland, author of many books. His most recent is Freedom Is Not Enough: Black Voters, Black Candidates, and American Presidential Politics. Ron Walters is chair of the advisory committee of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Professor Walters.

RON WALTERS: Good to be with you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Can you lay out the committee chairmanships that are now led by African Americans?

RON WALTERS: Well, the major committees — and I think you were right when you said that there would be up to 20, probably 14, subcommittees — but the major committees: Judiciary, John Conyers; Homeland Security, Bennie Thompson; and you’re going to have a House Administration, Juanita Millender-McDonald; and there was almost a fourth, and that was Alcee Hastings.

AMY GOODMAN: Of course, there’s also Charles Rangel, head of Ways and Means.

RON WALTERS: Well, Charles Rangel is head of Ways and Means, and he shouldn’t be left out, because that’s probably going to be the key committee in the Congress this term.

JUAN GONZALEZ: We were discussing with our previous guest how Nancy Pelosi has tried to crack down on some of these leaders, especially Conyers on Judiciary over the impeachment issue and Charlie Rangel over his constant call for the return of the draft. Could you talk about that?

RON WALTERS: Well, this is a politics that really started in the election, and you have to trace it back to the Blue Dog Democrats, the conservative wing of the Democratic Party in the House Democratic Caucus, and they were saying that, well, some of these chairs that are going to come on stream, if the Democrats win, are going to be very "liberal," quote/unquote. That began to resonate with the Republicans, who then sent out a series of letters saying that, yeah, some of these chairs are going to be too liberal. They’re going to go after the President to impeach him. They’re going to do this, that and the other.

In response to that, Nancy Pelosi then extracted some promises — one of them, for example, from John Conyers, that he wouldn’t go after the President and impeachment, another from Charlie Rangel, saying that he wouldn’t roll back all of the tax cuts — so that that politics was really sort of the politics of the election process. It’s now become the politics of 2008, and so the irony here is that, although African Americans played a very substantial role in the election of 2006, in particular, turning over the Senate to the Democratic Party, that sort of moderate politics now begins to threaten the kind of agenda that you just laid out.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Is there any likelihood now that the new congress will deal with what has to be the most scandalous activity that has gone on over the last few years, affecting the African American communities, a situation not only of Hurricane Katrina itself, but of the continuing scandal over how New Orleans has been treated, especially the black community there?

RON WALTERS: Well, it’s possible. When you look at the agenda, the 100 [Hours] agenda that Nancy Pelosi sort of rolled out, what is glaringly missing, on the part of many African Americans, is Katrina. And that marks sort of a difference in the two agendas and the politics that might evolve with respect to these new chairs and the House Democratic leadership.

But you do now have John Conyers, who is in place to look at sort of the electoral process there. There was a lot of energy focused on the election of the mayor of New Orleans in this last session. And a lot of organizations, of course, were involved in that. So he is there now to look at that. You got Bennie Thompson, whose state of Mississippi, of course, was damaged. He played a role in some of the meetings with the White House in trying to develop all sorts of resources for Mississippi. He’s now head of Homeland Security, where he’ll be dealing with the immigration issues, but also Gulf-related issues. So you now have at least two people, in addition to Representative Jefferson, who won re-election from that district, and who, although he may be considered to some tainted, nevertheless he still remains a very effective member of Congress who has brought back a lot of resources to that area. So you have three people now who are going to press to see that those sort of issues are brought to the table.

JUAN GONZALEZ: In terms of the war in Iraq — and the members of the Black Caucus have been perhaps some of the most vocal on the issue of the war — what impact do you think — what will happen now with the new congress?

RON WALTERS: Well, I don’t know. You’ve got — Barbara Lee, I think, has — from Nancy Pelosi’s area — has gained tremendous stature because she was the only member of the Congress to stand up and oppose this war. So, obviously, she will be exercising some leadership on this.

But the big problem, of course, I see here is structural. When you look at the fact that already $436 billion has been spent — in the last session the Republicans acted on another supplemental of $70 billion. That brings it up to $500 billion. And out there waiting in the wings somewhere in the Department of Defense is another $130 billion to $150 billion. Those kind of numbers make it very difficult for these new chairs to do very much for their constituency.

So there’s this supreme irony in all of this, that you have the most power that you’ve ever had in the black community, and when you look at the political context within which they’re governing, both on the fiscal side with respect to the funds going to Iraq and with respect to the moderation of the party, it looks as though that their power is going to be limited.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Ron Walters, director of the African American Leadership Institute at University of Maryland and is chair of the advisory committee of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. When you have someone like Congressmember John Conyers, who heads Judiciary, who made impeachment an absolute critical component of his agenda under Republican leadership, how do the politics work when he’s just told to, well, as Nancy Pelosi said, take it off the table?

RON WALTERS: Well, his response was that he’s going to hold hearings. And I think that he probably will come up as close as he can as a chairman to try to lay out the sort of way in which intelligence, for example, was used. You know, he was very active in pursuing sort of where the Downing Street memorandum led. So I think he’ll do a lot to try to lay that out before the American people. I think that other things having to do with the use of intelligence, maybe Vice President Cheney, of course, will come back into this. Scooter Libby will probably come back into this. So I think if he is active on sort of the hearings, oversight hearings, that are attendant to the way in which we got into the war, he may not have to call for impeachment. But he certainly can lay out a very damaging case that will continue to put the administration on the defensive.

It looks as though, from what we’re seeing here, in maybe next week, the President is going to lay out his agenda. Perhaps that’s a surge of new troops, more spending, potential alienation of the American people, something that may last for another two years. If John Conyers is effective in these hearings, it seems to me that that is a politics that might take us again into 2008, that will continue to keep the American people focused on the war, focused on the way in which we got into this war, and therefore, probably keep the Republican Party’s negative ratings pretty high.

AMY GOODMAN: And the issue of voting, voter roll purges, particularly of African Americans around the country?

RON WALTERS: Well, that issue has a lot to do with the Federal Election Commission and the way in which it brings the technology on board to try to deal with many of these new sort of electronic systems that had been purchased with federal money — again, another very ripe target for oversight, because when you look at the fact that right now in Florida there is going to be a little bit of politics around a member of Congress who has just been elected and in a situation where you’ve got 18,000 votes uncounted. A Republican ostensibly won that election. The Democrat was the person who didn’t have the 18,000 votes.

There’s a question of whether or not Democrats will vote not to seek that person. I think the Democrats probably would let the Republican be seated, but I think that a John Conyers will probably look into that and many other problems like that. He was very vigorous, as you know, in the 2004 election cycle, in looking into what happened in the election in Ohio, wrote a very stunning report on the disenfranchisement suffered there. And so, I would expect that he would continue to do that now that he has the power to call oversight hearings.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And also, in terms of Congressman Charles Rangel, arguably the most powerful African American in the history now of the Congress, heading Ways and Means, controlling the purse strings, in essence, of the nation, what do you see as the main things that he is going to press as chair of Ways and Means, and where will be the possible key differences that he might have with his own leadership and Nancy Pelosi?

RON WALTERS: Well, Representative Rangel has said that tax reform will be his main target, things like the alternative minimum tax, of course, involved in that. To the extent that he begins to deal seriously with taxes, particularly those taxes that were enacted by the Republican administration, he’s going to run afoul of the White House, and depending upon what package he delivers, that can cause the President to exercise his first veto.

But he’s going to be active on other issues, trade issues, Social Security and Medicare, huge entitlement programs. And here, again, as you know, the White House has tried to propose to the American people a different approach to the question of Social Security, a reform. I think that Charlie Rangel probably is going to go in another direction on that. Medicare spending, the same thing. So there are going to be these huge issues that are going to come before his committee, that he’s going to be probably at loggerheads with the White House, and that’s going to have its own drama.

AMY GOODMAN: Ron Walters, I want to thank you very much for being with us, director of the African American Leadership Institute, University of Maryland, and chair of the advisory committee of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation.

RON WALTERS: Thank you for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: Thank you.

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