The Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) is set to hold unprecedented influence after a House GOP majority in which not a single African-American chaired a committee.
Five members of the CBC are leading committees in the newly empowered Democratic majority. And two CBC members, Majority Whip James Clyburn (S.C.) and Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.), are in the top rungs of the House Democratic leadership.
Those prominent perches are only part of the influence the CBC wields in the Democratic caucus.
The CBC now comprises a record 55 members, which includes two nonvoting delegates and Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Kamala Harris (D-Calif.). That’s up from the previous record of 49, from the last Congress.
Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) will be the face of what’s expected to be a barrage of investigations into the Trump administration as chairman of the Oversight and Reform Committee. Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) will oversee immigration, election security and counterterrorism issues atop the Homeland Security Committee, while Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) will chair the Education and Labor Committee with authority over college affordability, the minimum wage and child care policies.
Two CBC members are marking milestones as the first women and first African-Americans to chair their respective panels: Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) atop the Financial Services Committee and Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) overseeing the Science, Space and Technology Committee.
The changes come after the House GOP committee chair roster offered little racial diversity for eight years. Former Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Fla.), the first Latina elected to Congress, led the Foreign Affairs Committee during part of the GOP majority. Rep. Devin Nunes (Calif.), who is of Portuguese descent, was the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and remains the panel’s top Republican. Both have also been members of the Congressional Hispanic Conference.
It’s a sore spot for Republicans that’s drawing a sharp contrast with the makeup of the new Democratic majority.
“The Republican Party needs to understand that the makeup of the United States has changed,” CBC Chairwoman Karen Bass (D-Calif.) said. “The Republican side of the aisle looks like the America of the past.”
Waters recently told Vox that she plans to create a Financial Services subcommittee specifically focused on diversity and inclusion.
“We believe that not only are we going to be able to define very clearly for everybody where there is discrimination but also have recommendations and try to work with all of the entities that are involved to eliminate it,” Waters told Vox.
Waters has openly invoked her personal identity. Indeed, Waters went viral last year for challenging Republicans’ move to repeal a consumer protection agency’s guidance meant to ensure lenders couldn’t charge minorities more for auto loans.
“I am more offended as an African-American woman than you will ever be,” Waters told Rep. Mike Kelly (R-Pa.) in a fiery House floor debate.
Waters already has a nationwide following and, beyond her diversity and inclusion efforts, is sure to make headlines on other key oversight priorities. She has expressed interest in Deutsche Bank’s financial records of President Trump and the Trump administration’s efforts to weaken the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Johnson, for her part, wants to make promoting minority participation in the STEM workforce one of her policy priorities while leading the Science Committee. She plans to reintroduce legislation that would require federal agencies to collect demographic data on federal research grant recipients and promote research on women’s and minorities’ STEM trajectories.
Johnson has firsthand experience with diversity in STEM fields: she was also the first woman and African-American to serve as chief psychiatric nurse at the Dallas Veterans Affairs Hospital.
“This experience has contributed to my understanding how crucial and necessary it is to promote the participation of minorities in our STEM workforces,” Johnson said in a statement to The Hill.
Thompson, meanwhile, acknowledged that hailing from a state with a history of racial violence informs his perspective while handling domestic terrorism issues, particularly with the rise of hate crimes from right-wing extremists in recent years.
“It allows me to look at the issue more broadly than perhaps someone who is from another part of the country. Being an African-American uniquely positions me to be sensitive to domestic terrorism,” Thompson said in an interview.
The current slate of ranking Republicans on committees is all white and currently includes just two women: Rep. Kay Granger (Texas) at Appropriations and Rep. Virginia Foxx (N.C.) at Education and Labor.
There’s been little opportunity for GOP leaders to elevate African-Americans in their caucus, simply because there are so few of them. Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas) is currently the only African-American in the 199-member House Republican Conference.
But CBC members have gradually gained more and more influence over the years in the Democratic caucus.
The power CBC members hold now, Thompson said, is “a sign that we’ve come a long way from the belly of ships to the No. 3 person of the House of Representatives and those chairmanships.”