The chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, is confident that with a Democratic House majority, nine new caucus members, one caucus member serving as the majority whip, another as the Democratic Caucus chair and five others serving as House committee chairs, the Black community has a “tremendous amount to gain” during the 116th Congress.

Last year, the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) released the “We Have a Lot to Lose” report in response to then-presidential candidate Donald Trump’s 2016 appeal to the Black community, “What the hell do you have to lose?” uttered during a rally in Dimondale, Michigan.

In the 130-page document, the CBC emphasized issues in various policy areas, including voting rights, criminal justice reform and health care. Since winning the House majority in November 2018, Karen Bass has made these three areas priorities among the caucus’ list of 10 must-do policies within the first 100 days of the 116th Congress. She also has a goal for her first term as chairwoman.

113th Congress official portrait of Congresswoman Karen Bass (D-California)

“By December of 2020, I don’t want people to ask ‘what does the Black Caucus do?’” Bass said. “We need to have a way more robust and aggressive communication strategy.”

Bass noted that during the last Congressional session, the CBC had a major victory in securing millions of dollars for HBCU scholarships in the latest Farm Bill. According to Bass, the legislative win slipped under the radar, and the caucus did not “get their due.”

Bass believes CBC members who chair five House committees and more than 20 subcommittees will raise the caucus’ profile.

“That gives us a platform to go into communities,” Bass said about the leadership posts. “We’re calling our five chairs ‘The Big Five.’”

The Big Five

Five CBC members chair the House Committees on Financial Services; Oversight and Reform; Science, Space and Technology; Education and Labor; and Homeland Security. The members also happen to be among the Democratic firebrands.

Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) has served on the powerful Financial Services Committee since 1995. She is the first woman and first African-American to hold the committee’s gavel. Waters shared her committee’s priorities during an appearance at the Center for American Progress on Jan.16. She plans to tackle housing finance issues and push for diversity and inclusion throughout the private sector over which her panel has oversight.

“There is a growing body of research showing a connection between the level of diversity in a company and the strength of its financial performance,” Waters said. “Despite these facts, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has found a continued trend of low representation of minorities and women in the financial services industry.”

To combat this concern, Waters has added a subcommittee devoted to diversity and inclusion.

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), who chairs the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, is a familiar face beyond Washington. During an interview with CBS’ 60 Minutes, Cummings said he planned to investigate whether Trump is using his office for financial gain.

“I still believe that people—the average citizen, the guys on my block, they oughta know if the president is making a deal, whether he's making it—making it in his self-interest or that of the country,” Cummings said during the interview.

Last week, Cummings launched an investigation into White House security clearances. Days after the announcement, a Trump appointee rejected son-in-law Jared Kushner’s security clearance.

Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) chairs the committee on Homeland Security. Prior to wielding the gavel, Thompson was known as an outspoken critic of the Trump administration’s migrant family separation and immigration policies.

Earlier this month, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D- Ore.) released a previously unseen memo dated December 2017 from the Trump administration on the migrant family separation. In a press release, Thompson questioned Homeland Security Secretary Kristen Nielsen’s truthfulness during sworn congressional hearings on this subject.

“This revelation raises grave questions about the veracity of Secretary Nielsen’s sworn testimony to Congress and her statements to the American people from the White House denying the existence of this immoral policy,” Thompson said in a press release.

Thompson has called for Nielsen to return to Congress to “answer for this cruel and heartless policy—and her inaccurate statements.”

Adding to the task of holding the Trump administration accountable, Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) is using his Education and Labor committee chairmanship to push for reinforcement of Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. According to a recent Washington Post report, the Trump administration is considering measures to dilute federal rules against discrimination in education, housing and other federal entities.

In response to the report, Scott introduced a resolution that would task the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Department of Education (DOE) and the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice with investigating discrimination claims. The measure would also create a position of assistant secretary in the DOE to “coordinate and promote” the enforcement of equity and inclusion in education.

On Wednesday, Scott introduced the Rebuild America’s Schools Act, a proposal to invest more than $100 billion in public schools. The bill would fund $70 billion in grants and $30 billion in bonds to address physical and digital infrastructure needs in schools across the country. Economic projections predict the measure would create nearly 2 million jobs.

Scott introduced another bill with an economic focus to his committee, H.R. 582. This legislation would provide increases to the federal minimum wage. Scott is also a proponent of the Raise the Wage Act of 2019, which would gradually boost the federal minimum wage to $15 by 2024.

On the gun violence front, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), chairwoman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, introduced the National Gun Violence Research Act.

The bill would create a national research program to study the nature, causes and consequences of gun violence. The measure would also study gun violence prevention and aspects of gun ownership.

“Gun violence is both a public health crisis and a daunting criminal justice challenge. It is past time for action to address it, and one important component for effective action is understanding the problem,” Johnson said in a press release. “We need more research to understand the impact of policies like assault weapons bans, concealed-carry laws, and minimum age requirements on outcomes like suicide, violent crime, and unintended injury and death.”

Eliminating Racial Disparities in Health Care

The Congressional Black Caucus, like the Democratic Party, is focused on advancing access to health care. Two bills introduced by CBC members address health concerns that disproportionately impact the Black community.

Rep. Robin Kelly (D-Ill.) plans to reintroduce The Mothers of Offspring Maternal Mortality Awareness (MOMMA) Act. The legislation would increase reporting of infant and maternal mortality. The measure would also include training for clinicians.

A report from Nine Maternal Mortality Review Committees said Black women experience maternal deaths at a rate three to four times that of non-Hispanic White women. Studies cited by the committees in the report found that the five leading causes are “Cardiomyopathy, Cardiovascular and coronary conditions, Preeclampsia and eclampsia, Hemorrhage and Embolism.”

Kelly said that in her home state of Illinois, Black women and infant deaths are double the national rate.

Related Articles

“As far as cultural competency there has been study after study that talks about you do better when the person looks like you,” Kelly said of Black women’s maternal experiences with physicians. To address these findings, she plans to also introduce measures that would increase the representation of Black women in the science, technology, engineering and medical fields.

Another CBC member and Democrat from Illinois, Rep. Bobby Rush, proposed the Insulin Access for All Act of 2019. This measure would eliminate cost-sharing by categorizing insulin as a part D drug under the Medicare program and as an outpatient drug under the Medicaid program.

According to a 2018 Center for Disease Control and Prevention study, researchers found that the chance of type 2 diabetes was significantly higher for black adults than for white adults. The greatest difference was between black women and white women.

“There are many who simply cannot afford the insulin they need to live longer, active, and productive lives,” Rush said in a press release. “No American should go without life-sustaining medication.”

Civil Rights Legislation

Rush has also introduced the Emmett Till Antilynching Act to categorize lynching as a hate crime. The legislation is similar to another measure Rush proposed in 2018. Although Rush’s 2018 bill did not advance beyond a committee referral, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) unanimously passed a Senate measure to specify lynching as a federal crime.

Prior to Harris’ success, lawmakers have introduced anti-lynching legislation 200 times within 100 years. Another civil right legislative effort has been reintroduced by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas)—H.R. 40. Before leaving Congress in 2017, Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), introduced H.R. 40—the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act during every Congressional term since 1989.

Jackson Lee has reintroduced the Emancipation National Historic Trail Act. The legislation would create a 51-mile trail across Texas, which follows the migration route of newly freed slaves and other persons of African descent from Galveston, Texas, to Freedmen’s Town in the 4th Ward of Houston.

The bill has the support of CBC members such as Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and Republican Will Hurd of Texas. 

Majority Whip and CBC member James Clyburn (D-S.C.) introduced a measure Wednesday to reauthorize the Historically Black Colleges and Universities Historic Preservation program. The bill seeks $10 million annually for seven years to restore and preserve historic buildings and sites on the campuses of HBCUs.

The Senate’s companion bill has garnered bipartisan support from Sens. Harris and Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

“Many of which were built more than a century ago by student labor and designed by unsung Black architects,” Clyburn said in a press release.  “By continuing these efforts, we are extending a tremendous legacy.”

Another civil rights-related action to follow is Thompson’s introduction of the Medgar and Myrlie Evers Home National Monument Act. The measure would establish a monument on the historic site of the Everses’ home.

Last year, then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke designated the home as an African American Civil Rights Network Site. Since then, Zinke has resigned and a new secretary has taken over the department.

In the bill, Thompson tasks the Department of the Interior with mapping the boundaries of the monument and acquiring the land.

Jessica A. Floyd is a candidate for her master’s degree at Medill-Northwestern University focusing on politics. You can follow her on Twitter @JessAFloyd.