It is hard to believe that this year marks the 39th gathering of the members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) for its annual conference. From its humble beginning when you could count the members of the Caucus on both hands, the CBC has grown into a political behemoth, with 42 members, and in the process, outgrew its former conference hotel, the Washington Hilton. Today the CBC members utilize the Washington Convention Center, a sign that its annual gathering has become a major political event in the capital. True to form, tens of thousands of citizens from all walks of life will converge on the nation’s capital to take part in the many workshops, forums and panel discussions that are scheduled.
Fair or not, over the years the Caucus’ Annual Legislative Conference has also gained a reputation for the extensive receptions, parties and celebratory events that are a part of the weeklong conference. The truth of the matter is that there is quite a bit of “celebrating” that goes on and that is not necessarily a bad thing. You can count the number of organizations that persist in our community can be on one hand, including long standing groups such as the National Urban League and the NAACP. The Congressional Black Caucus has now become an institution and those that support it have every reason to celebrate.
It is difficult to imagine a time when the number of Blacks serving in Congress was less than two and the voting rights of Blacks were trampled daily. To have the number of Blacks in the House and Senate swell to forty-two, in what was truly a short period, demonstrates the degree to which the struggles of the past have yielded real fruit. For many of us, the civil rights marches and protests of the 1960’s left behind little, in terms of a blueprint, to guide Blacks’ political pathway. Still, electoral victories resulted in our march into City Hall, the State House, Congress and the White House. Not only have Blacks become a powerful voting bloc in Congress, they serve as the chairs of several key committees that shape the agenda of their party. In the process, the CBC has become what it has always claimed to be: the conscience of Congress.
This year’s Annual Legislative Conference could not come at a more opportune moment. President Barack Obama, the nation’s first Black commander-in-chief, is coming under a withering attack from conservatives in the Republican Party who are attempting to derail his health care reform agenda. Given the importance of health care as a true “life and death” issue for the Black community, the Congressional Black Caucus can play a pivotal role in making certain that “reform” truly does result in greater access to health care and at affordable rates. The CBC made its position clear last week during a Capitol Hill press conference with the National Urban League and the NAACP. It has its work cut out as it also has to battle inside the Democratic Caucus to make certain that the uninsured and underinsured benefit from whatever health care legislation eventually reaches the President’s desk.
Though prominent in the news, health care is not the only issue that should be on the CBC’s plate. Blacks have been devastated by the recession and recovery will likely lag behind other segments of the nation. Faring worse has been Black men and young adults, though women are not exactly skating through the downturn. Even though there are some signs of the beginning of a recovery, for many Blacks there will be no recovery. Families have been devastated by layoffs, resulting in mounting debts and home foreclosures. There appears to be little relief on the horizon so the CBC must be aggressive in making sure that any federal relief is targeted toward the most vulnerable.
The burden is not all for the members of Congress to carry. We must engage the elected officials we have sent to Washington, DC to represent our interests. The strength of the CBC increases 100 fold when its constituents, “the people,” make their voices heard in the corridors of power in our nation’s capital. We must take advantage of this powerful voting bloc in Congress and be defiant in our demand for equity in public policy.