Congress reconvenes next month with a record number of African American committee chairmen. But the hardest part of governing, now that Democrats control both the House and Senate, may be how well party leaders handle members of their own party.
Even before she assumes her role as the first female speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., is showing signs of inconsistency. I don't know what it is, but when White liberals want to prove that they can be tough, they invariably pick an African American as the punching bag; Bill Clinton, running for president, appeared before a Jesse Jackson-sponsored event to criticize Sister Souljah.
Although FBI agents reported that they found $90,000 in Rep. William Jefferson's freezer, giving new meaning to the term "cold cash," he still has not been indicted, let alone convicted of any crime. In fact, he proceeded to get re-elected against overwhelming odds on Saturday. Rather than grant Jefferson the presumption of innocence and wait for him to be judged by the judicial system, Pelosi saw fit to summarily kick him off of the House Ways and Means Committee. The Congressional Black Caucus objected to the move, but in the end, had no power to change the outcome.
Seeing several Republican operatives go to jail on corruption charges, Pelosi pledged to drain the swamp, her way of saying Democrats would be a paragon of ethical behavior. She sought to make this point by passing over Alcee Hastings, an African American, to become chair of the House Intelligence Committee.
Playing on the intelligence of African Americans, she decided to pass over Hastings at the urging of Blue Dog Democrats — conservatives who frequently vote with Republicans. Hastings' opponents point to a Senate decision 17 years ago to remove him from the federal bench. The Senate voted to impeach Hastings after a federal jury found him not guilty of accepting bribes.
Strangely, Pelosi rejected Hastings, supposedly on ethical grounds, while pushing hard for the selection of tainted Rep. John Murtha, D-Penn. Murtha was entangled in ABSCAM, the FBI bribery and sting operation of the 1970s that sent several congressmen to jail. Murtha was seen on the videotape discussing a bribe for help in an immigration case. Murtha never turned down the bribe, saying only that he wasn't interested "at this time."
Over the past 12 years, House Republican leaders have been effective because they had a clear agenda and punished anyone who strayed from the course. Early indications are that Nancy Pelosi will rule by caving in to conservative dissidents.
The clout of Blue Dog Democrats is vastly overrated. With 44 members, they have only one member more than the Black Caucus — one-fifth of the Democratic delegation. If it weren't for Black congressmen such as Harold Ford Jr., a member of both groups, the Blue Dogs wouldn't enjoy that slight edge.
The Hispanic and Black congressional caucuses often form a voting bloc and have more combined members than the so-called Blue Dog Democrats. In addition, other groups, such as those representing progressive women, represent more members than the conservative wing of the Democratic Party. The Congressional Caucus for Women's Issues, for example, co-chaired by Barbara Lee and Lynn Woolsey, will have at least 71 members in January. It makes no sense to capitulate to 20 percent of the party while ignoring the needs of the other 80 percent.
Although some members of the Congressional Black Caucus feel we should be doing cartwheels over their election to power committees and subcommittees, the new speaker of the House has already proven that she is willing to ignore the wishes of the caucus.
Ron Walters, the highly respected political scientist at the University of Maryland, and I appeared on Jesse Jackson's talk show last Sunday. All three of us concluded that African Americans can't relax just because Blacks have more power in Congress. In order to bring about change and keep some of the Black lawmakers on course, African Americans must lobby them and hold them accountable. And when Pelosi steps out of line, she, too, should feel the heat.
If we fail to do that, we might continue to have a good time every year at Congressional Black Caucus weekend, but we will have minimal influence in Congress. And if that's going to be the case, why go through the motions?
George E. Curry is editor in chief of the NNPA News Service and BlackPressUSA.com.