The election of the first Black President had many people pondering the role of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) in light of public perceptions that Black Americans now had a friend in the White House, and the racially driven politics of yesterday would not be necessary. Some people went so far as to suggest the CBC would become irrelevant in this era of supposed post-racial politics. After all, the Caucus was founded on the premise of Black members needing to coalesce against a hostile white political power structure. With a Black President in command there were many who began to question the necessity of defining an agenda in racially specific terms.
I am not among those who believe that the Congressional Black Caucus has outlived its usefulness. In fact, it might be needed now more than ever precisely because there is a part of the American public that sincerely believes that Barack Obama’s victory is the final payment on the civil rights movement. Where I see it as another installment on the promissory note Dr. King described in his March on Washington speech. The election of the first Black President, no matter how momentous, is no guarantee that the issues most important to our community will be addressed. That is why we have a legislative branch that theoretically represents the will of the people. The CBC can fulfill its role as the “conscience” of Congress if it does not simply concede to the wishes of the administration.
Enter Rep. Barbara Lee of California. She is the new chairwoman of the CBC. Her name may not be as familiar to Blacks across the country as the likes of Charles Rangel, Maxine Waters or John Conyers, but the congresswoman has distinguished herself on the Hill. When both parties buckled to the Bush administration’s request for authorization to wage war in Iraq, Barbara Lee was a singular, defiant voice. Unbowed and unrepentant, she stood alone and challenged the Bush administration and her own party. Her defiance resulted in a challenge from within the Democratic Party to her re-election; which she beat back. Lee’s stand made her well suited to lead her colleagues in Congress.
Wasting no time to demonstrate the Caucus’ independent voice, Rep. Lee has publicly criticized President Obama’s selection of Republican Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire to be Commerce Secretary. Lee has pointed to Gregg’s support of a move to eliminate the Department of Commerce during the Clinton presidency and his opposition to funding for the 2000 decennial census. Concern has been raised over how Gregg might approach the 2010 census since the Commerce Department oversees the Bureau of the Census. Since the Caucus has been relatively silent on Obama’s choice of Cabinet members the criticism by Lee represents the first serious break in the Democrats’ unified front. Though House members have no role in the confirmation process, Lee is calling upon Senate Democrats to hold the nominee's feet to the fire during his hearing. Her stand will also be an early test for Senator Roland Burris of Illinois who replaced President Obama in the Senate.
To be sure Gregg is not at the top of my list of Senators who I would name as most enlightened to the concerns and needs of the Black community. I thoroughly understand though the rationale in appointing the Republican to the post. Democrats are habitually demonized by the GOP for being tone deaf to the needs of the private sector so who better to pick to lead Commerce than one off the opposing bench? Gregg also helps the President fulfill his promise of bipartisanship by including on his Cabinet someone whose politics are not fully aligned with his own.
While all of the above may be true, Rep. Lee is correct in pointing out the areas of disagreement with Senator Gregg. The CBC needs to be vocal when this administration takes a turn that appears to lead our community in the wrong direction. Even though Rep. Lee will not likely stop Gregg’s nomination she has served notice in a public way that may prompt Senator Gregg, if confirmed, to see the necessity of hearing the Caucus out on key economic issues. It might be seen as a minor detour off the Democratic “script” but Lee’s critique of Gregg is a breath of fresh air.