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Rep. Major R. Owens Headshot

Spotlight on the Congressional Black Caucus

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Has the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) been silent for the last three years? Or has the lazy mainstream media overlooked a strong Black Congressional voice? Recent rumblings in town hall meetings indicated rising furious demands for accountability from the CBC.
Thanks to speaker Nancy Pelosi's wisdom the CBC now has a highly visible platform and can no longer hide or be ignored. Pelosi's recent appointment of Jim Clyburn to the congressional oligarchy of twelve budget decision-makers places the CBC on center stage with the spotlight specifically focused on Clyburn. An opportunity to speak through Jim has been granted to the total CBC membership. The desperate plight of Black Americans must be his priority concern.
Is Clyburn already indisputably the most powerful member of the CBC? Obviously as former Majority whip he reached the highest rank among his colleagues. But power in congress is more complex than position on the surface. Penetrating influence commanding intense loyalty is acquired in many ways. As CBC chair former Representative Ron Dellums combined administrative thoroughness with enduring righteous indignation. Later in that same position Maxine waters combined a penchant for passionate confrontations with an extraordinary understanding of the diversity and breadth of the federal bureaucracy. Her leadership initiatives ranged from the fight for educational technology and the E-Rate wiring of schools to an unrelenting pressure to end the war in Iraq. On frontline social issues John Conyers is an unchallenged permanent leader. On issues related to the African Diaspora no one can match the tenacity of Donald Payne. And there is an abiding moral anchoring of the CBC by spirits like Congressmen John Lewis and Emanuel Cleaver.
Meanwhile, not withstanding the abundance of talent in the CBC, and returning to the nuts and bolts of Washington politics, Jim Clyburn presently emerges as the most powerful Black legislator in America. With his special style of weaving and bobbing through the lines punctuated by short sprints through the secondary and brief runs into the open field he has played a winning game. No crown was handed to Clyburn on a platter. With old-fashioned political maneuvering he earned his power.
As he takes his seat now among the almighty aristocracy of fiscal policy makers, the time has come to harvest the fruits of political power. Throughout his career Clyburn has repeatedly demonstrated his skills as a mediator and negotiator. In South Carolina as a Human Rights functionary he survived Republican as well as Democratic administrations. On red-hot issues such as the flying of the confederate flag in the capitol Jim's followers allowed him to punt. His constituents applauded his well-timed attack on Bill Clinton's characterization of Obama as a fairy-tale character while overlooking Clyburn's reluctance to endorse Obama until he was a sure winner.
As Clyburn takes his seat on the Super Committee there is an explosion of discontent and bitterness erupting in the rank and file of Blacks. In addition to the neglectful performance of the President, the suffering masses are protesting the vacuum initiative posture of the CBC. Why has there been no initiative to counteract the housing foreclosure debacle? Why so much silence on the billions still being wasted on war in Iraq and Afghanistan? If the Tea Party caucus can bang their fists on the table and insist that there be no new taxes, why can't the more experienced CBC demand that there be no cuts in education? Where is the CBC Alternative Budget message to help shape a more reasonable public debate? Why is there no CBC approved list of spending cuts and tax increases already prepared? In order for Blacks to survive the venom being injected by the Tea Party the CBC must administer a strong political antidote.
In the past three years there has been very little visible interaction between President Obama and the CBC. But as a key member of the House Democratic Leadership Clyburn has attended many vitally important sessions. How has this key leader advocated for Black America? Economists agree that Blacks have lost more than half of their meager share of American wealth since 2008. When you add the highest unemployment rates, the new voter harassment and intimidation schemes and the alarming retreat from adequate education funding confronting us we are forced to concede that Black America is plunging toward a permanent underclass status. Should the burden of blame for this be placed on the back of Jim Clyburn?
On the one hand the scoreboard shows dismal losses that must be explained. On the other hand Clyburn must be given credit for "being there" when the pressure had to be applied to pass President Obama's historic healthcare law. Blacks are among the greatest beneficiaries of this new deal. Nancy Pelosi performed magnificently but she needed help. On veteran's benefits, unemployment benefits extensions, the passage of the Dodd-Franks law and numerous other small unheralded achievements, an effective Democratic Whip in the 109th Congress was an absolute necessity. And for most of these efforts Clyburn began with the full support of the CBC. There is an established record, which adds up to an impressive political success. Greatness beyond success is now the challenge and opportunity faced by the Congressman from South Carolina. "To help somebody" was the simple standard set by Martin Luther King. Jim Clyburn now has an obligation to help millions.
While still a member of Congress in 2006 I prepared a series of "Portraits in RAP Poetry" of my colleagues. The following is a poetic sketch of the Jim Clyburn I knew at that time:


With a bounty of transportation bucks
Freshman Clyburn showed he was clever;
All the South Carolina clubhouse boys
Danced Dixie up and down
Cheering Mister Jim and diversity forever.
Mister Jim
Made Mister Charlie look cheap,
Sowing his seeds of sunburned charm
A lots more dollars
Congressman Clyburn managed to reap.
Before he agrees to negotiate
Mister Jim dangles the right bait;
From smoke filled rooms
He emerges with fat surprises;
Mister Jim
Never despises compromises.
Mister Jim rescued
Bill Clinton's Black politics career;
When affirmative action fumbling
Was about to end it
Mister Jim talked to Bubba
And convinced him to merely mend it.
Mr. Jim can display
Warm understanding affectionate appeal
But the world is a better place
Cause Mister Jim
Knows how and when to deal.