Congress has become so polarized that regular functions seem to be failing.
The speaker of the House has refused to send charges of impeachment to the Senate, little legislative agreement is possible and the president is acting without congressional approval on Iran.
In these times, I pray that Congress uses its informal networks, like the caucuses, as a tool for compromise and progress. One of the most recognizable caucuses, the Congressional Black Caucus, known as the CBC, has long been doing such work. The CBC is an example of a longtime bipartisan institution dedicated to furthering its mission to help Americans “achieve the American Dream.”
Though its membership is all black, CBC members are a diverse network that works collaboratively to benefit blacks and similar voters who have historically been overlooked. The CBC has 18 task forces addressing a range of issues, from environmentalism to criminal justice.
Even if you have never heard of it, you
have seen its members in action. Rep.
Al Green, D-Texas, was the first member of the House to call for the impeachment of President Donald Trump. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., recently spoke out against the president’s drone strike in Iran. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga.,has been an ardent proponent of voting rights. Maxine Waters, Kamala Harris and the late Elijah Cummings — all of them, members of the CBC.
The CBC was founded in 1971, the offspring of the less permanent Democratic Select Committee established in 1969 by Reps. Shirley Chisholm, of New York, Carl Stokes, of Ohio, and William L. Clay, of Missouri. Once established, the bipartisan, though majority Democratic, member caucus began to work collaboratively on legislative issues in the House and Senate.
If you are not a legislator yourself, you need voting members to advocate for policy that benefits you. The experience of black people, denied representation before the Civil War and during Jim Crow, made this clear. During Jim Crow for example, the NAACP found it could not urge Congress to pass an anti-lynching bill. This was in part due to lack of representation. Black members were elected during Reconstruction, but after 1910, not again from a northern state until 1928, nor from the South until 1973.
Today black members make up 12% of Congress. There are 53 black representatives, including two non-voting delegates, in the House of Representatives, and three senators. How did this happen? Federal law requiring “one man, one vote,” and, congressional legislation. The Voting Rights Act, the Help American Vote Act and the National America Vote Act, have all helped contribute to the increase.
Today Congress is remarkably diverse. The 116th Congress is 22% racial minority; but it’s still homogeneous. Some 78% of members of Congress are white and 75% male, in a venue where affirmative representation and coalition building are critical.
The CBC provides an example of over 40 years of successful bipartisan coalition, camaraderie building, internal support, and internship opportunity to groom potential legislators interested in careers in national government.
Since 1971, the CBC has requested a meeting annually with the president and the CBC routinely informs the executive about beneficial legislation. Recent CBC initiatives include the FUTURE Act to provide funding to Historically Black Colleges and Universities; work to #Rootout racism from federal policy, at the White House, and on federal property (for example, removing Confederate monuments and ending domestic terrorism). And importantly, it’s been working to hold the current president accountable for his actions, statements and people he hires.
Today the work of the CBC, other caucuses and loose networks, are critical. They provide the possibility of working government and legitimate representation. Perhaps they are the solution to the violent perils of polarization.