Black members of Congress have never been more powerful than they are right now.
Their numbers are larger than at any point in US history. Three female lawmakers are serious contenders to join former Vice President Joe Biden on the 2020 ticket. Their voices are being heard as daily protests over police brutality force a widespread reckoning about systemic racial disparities in the US and around the globe.
Now just wait until January. That’s when the Congressional Black Caucus expects to have even more sway if Democrats sweep the upcoming elections and boot President Donald Trump from the White House.
In interviews over the past week with six members of the influential group, all said they could envision their caucus playing critical roles in many of Biden’s governing decisions, beyond just seeing one of their own serving as the next vice president.
They want to have a voice advising a Democratic administration on the makeup of the Cabinet, as well as the hundreds of other appointments for a number of government agencies. Perhaps most important, they said they expected Biden to spend the political capital he’d have should he win on policies that would specifically benefit African Americans.
“You name it: small business, Homeland Security, education, financial services,” Rep. Karen Bass, a California Democrat, the chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, and a short lister to be Biden’s running mate, said when asked about the areas of influence her group would have over a new administration.
For Black lawmakers, it’s a bittersweet moment. While the CBC’s ranks have swelled to the largest numbers since it officially formed nearly a half century ago during the Richard Nixon presidency, it last weekend lost its most famous voice in Rep. John Lewis.
But even the death of the Georgia Democrat and longtime civil-rights icon came with a clear sign of the group’s growing political power. Biden and his wife, Jill, traveled to Washington on Monday to pay their respects when Lewis made US history as the first African American lawmaker to lie in state in the Capitol rotunda.
‘No doubt’ the CBC helped Biden secure the nomination
There’s a big reason that Black lawmakers expect so much from Biden if he wins. African American turnout is fundamental for a Democratic White House victory in November. Looking back, the Black vote was also key for why the former vice president’s name even made it on the general-election ballot.
When Biden appeared to be trailing some of his primary opponents earlier this year after losses in Iowa and New Hampshire, the most powerful Black member of Congress threw him a lifeline. That endorsement in February from Rep. James Clyburn, No. 3 in the House Democratic leadership, helped deliver Biden a crucial victory in South Carolina, paving the way for his eventual nomination.
While the Congressional Black Caucus as a group didn’t make an endorsement in the wide-open 2020 Democratic primaries, the majority of its members are backing Biden. Its separate fundraising arm, the Congressional Black Caucus Political Action Committee, has also unanimously endorsed Biden, shoring up his chances among Black voters — who aren’t a monolith but make up a vital voting demographic for Democrats.
“There’s no doubt that the Congressional Black Caucus helped Biden secure the nomination,” said Theodore Johnson, a senior fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s law school.
“And a lot of Black voters got on board with Biden by taking cues from their elected officials, and most Black folks in the country are represented by Black members of Congress,” Johnson, whose work explores the role race plays in electoral politics, added.
Black voters are expected to make up about 12.5% of the electorate in November, according to the Pew Research Center. Their low turnout in 2016 is considered one of the reasons former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton lost to Trump. About 7% fewer Black voters turned out to vote in 2016 compared with the 2012 race between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, when the country’s first African American president won reelection, according to another Pew report.
For his part, Trump has tried to drive Black voters away from Democrats.
In 2016, Trump famously asked Black voters “what do you have to lose?” by voting for him. In the middle of recent anti-racism protests across the country, Trump has sought to capitalize on the unrest by hyping his “law and order” approach and casting Democratic leaders of cities with large Black populations, such as Chicago, Minneapolis, Detroit, and Atlanta as weak and ineffective. This year, Trump is making a more coordinated attempt to lure Black voters, including a “Black Voices for Trump” group that is hosting a Zoom call on Friday featuring the conservative motivational speaker and preacher C.L. Bryant.
California Rep. Karen Bass chairs the Congressional Black Caucus, which is at its largest size since its inception in 1971.
‘A very powerful voting bloc’ in the House
The current Democratic vice-presidential vetting process represents one of the most obvious signs of the Congressional Black Caucus’ influence. A Biden ticket that includes a female Black vice president has both historic and political appeal. And if it comes to pass, it also would preview the favorable policy outcomes possible for African Americans on the other end of a 2020 election win.
Biden’s pick is expected to be announced next week, and three members of the CBC have been publicly described as having made his shortlist: Bass, Florida Rep. Val Demings, and California Sen. Kamala Harris.
Black lawmakers also said they had heightened expectations that if Biden won, his transition team would consult with them as it built his Cabinet and proposed names for other federal appointments.
“I think that he will have an administration that will be reflective of America, and thereby, there will be individuals in there who will be working to correct some of the disparities that have been in this country for too long,” Rep. Gregory Meeks, a New York Democrat and the chairman of the CBC’s political arm, said. “So there will be partnerships.”
There’s also little doubt that Biden would need Black lawmakers if he won the White House and expected to be successful in implementing his governing agenda.
The CBC boasts some of the House’s prominent lawmakers, starting with Clyburn as the party’s two-time majority whip and lead vote counter. New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries chairs the entire Democratic Caucus.
Several powerful committees primed to have outsize influence in writing the legislation Biden ultimately would be tasked with signing count Black lawmakers in charge too. The list includes California Rep. Maxine Waters atop the House Financial Services Committee, Virginia Rep. Bobby Scott leading the Education and Labor Committee, Mississippi Rep. Bennie Thompson running the Homeland Security Committee, and Texas Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson chairing the Science, Space and Technology Committee.
CBC members also have the votes to make a difference. Starting this year with 55 members, the group is at its largest since its inception in 1971. Back then, it had just 13 members who tangled with Nixon over his initial refusal to meet with Black members of Congress. Now the CBC represents House districts that are home to about 82 million people, including 17 million African Americans.
“In the House, the Congressional Black Caucus is a very powerful voting bloc,” Johnson of the Brennan Center said, adding that no bill would make it to Biden’s desk without the group’s backing.
Tensions with Trump
A Biden presidency would also be starting at a historic moment after months of racial tensions amplified by Trump, who has been sympathetic to White supremacists, defended confederate symbols, and dismissed calls for police reform.
Trump has also had his own strained relationship with the Black caucus. When its members met with the new president at the White House in March 2017, the lawmakers said they didn’t want to be used as a photo prop and insisted on sitting away from the television cameras.
Three months later, the caucus rejected another White House invitation for a second meeting, arguing Trump hadn’t shown interest in any of the policies the CBC had outlined in their first meeting.
By that time the White House had also hosted a party with Republicans to celebrate a vote to start gutting the Affordable Care Act; Trump had instructed then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions to accelerate a war on drugs that’s widely seen as overtly aimed at Black people, and the White House had proposed sharp budget cuts that would disproportionately hurt minorities.
Those actions angered CBC members and signaled to them that their priorities would have to wait for a future president.
“I fail to see how a social gathering would benefit the policies we advocate for,” Rep. Cedric Richmond, a Louisiana Democrat who chaired the caucus at the time, wrote in his letter rejecting Trump’s invitation.
Richmond, who didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment, is now one of Biden’s national campaign co-chair and is expected to be a key conduit if there’s a Biden White House.
Former President Barack Obama’s support for Biden is seen as critical for the upcoming election and motivating Black voter turnout.
Black voices in the room
Still unclear is how Biden would balance his own priorities with those of the CBC.
The group has a lengthy list of its own top-tier policy demands that runs the gamut from protecting voter rights to expanding healthcare access, overhauling a criminal justice system that disproportionately targets Black people, strengthening labor protections and public education, and addressing economic and housing disparities that have plagued the African American community for generations.
For Democrats to have significant success legislating on any or all of those areas, they’d likely need to win the White House in November, maintain their majority in the House and also secure control of the Senate. But even then, Black lawmakers would be competing for attention with other powerful Democratic-aligned constituencies that have also been pushed into the wilderness during the Trump era.
There’s history here too. African American voters have long griped about Democrats pandering to get their votes every two years and then abandoning their policy demands after winning. But Black lawmakers and other experts interviewed for this story said that’s unlikely to happen with Biden, who despite an inner circle that is overwhelmingly white also recognizes African American support went a long way toward rescuing his floundering campaign.
“I don’t think there’s any way that Biden gets the presidency and says, ‘Thanks for your support. I’ll see you later.'” the Brennan Center’s Johnson said. “I think he will absolutely pay attention.”
In a sign that Biden is already listening, the presumptive Democratic nominee spelled out a plan on Tuesday to prop up Black and Latino communities, partly by spending tens of billions of dollars to boost minority-owned businesses, ensure they have a fair chance at government contracts and investing in roads, parks and supermarkets and other amenities in minority communities.
Demings, one of Biden’s vice presidential contenders, told Insider in a recent interview that she expected a new Democratic administration to focus on policy issues including policy brutality, health care, how COVID-19 kills African Americans at higher rates than other demographics and the economic disadvantages exacerbated by the pandemic.
“Dr. [Martin Luther] King said, of all the injustices, the lack of healthcare is the most unjust,” said the Florida representative. “Every individual living in the greatest country in the world should have access to health care…but also economic development. We have way too many communities that have been left behind.”
Biden, she said, has the “right mind and the right heart, the right level of courage and the right level of compassion” to help fix those problems.
“And so I think the Black Caucus will lead the way,” Demings added, “in continuing that work.”
Black members of Congress have never been more powerful than they are right now.