Ihappened to mention to a colleague that Rep. Kweisi Mfume, D. 7th, has been elected chairman of the CBC.
"What's the CBC?" he asked.
"You know," I said, "the Congressional Black Caucus."
"Ah yes," said my colleague appreciatively, "they host the best fashion show in town."
Similarly, news accounts of Mfume's rise to the chairmanship a few weeks ago noted that as chairman he will preside over the annual Congressional Black Caucus Weekend, which, with its fashion show and gala ball, has become the premier social event for the black hoi polloi in Washington, D.C. You would think that this is all the caucus is about -- fashion shows, and fancy dress balls and invitation-only dinners.
Indeed, we live in a society that seems incapable of recognizing black influence on matters of national importance -- as if we suffer from collective congenital handicap. Thus, it is virtually impossible to get an objective assessment of the group's impact on national and international affairs.
But caucus members led the fight to impose sanctions on South **TC Africa, and they led the fight again to keep them in place over White House objections. Caucus members helped maintain the flow of federal dollars to minority business enterprises. And they worked with corporate America to produce a Civil Rights Act that eventually became law.
Last year, caucus members sponsored 400 individual pieces of legislation and co-sponsored over 11,000 more bills. The group fought for a $30.9 million urban package and an alternative budget that focused fiscal priorities on domestic issues while meeting the mandates laid down by the Gramm-Rudman deficit reduction act.
Now, the 22-year-old organization is on the threshold of an important new era. When the 103rd Congress convenes next month, the Congressional Black Caucus will grow in size from 26 to 40 members. Until now, no more than six blacks have entered Congress the same year. There will be 39 black representatives and the nation's first black senator in 12 years.
Caucus members chair five major committees in Congress, 10 )) sub-committees, and at least two select committees. In addition, Rep. Ron Dellums, D. Calif., could succeed Rep. Les Aspin, D. Wis., as chairman of the powerful House Armed Services Committee. President-elect Bill Clinton nominated Mr. Aspin as his secretary of defense last week.
"I believe this is the most historic time in caucus history," says Mr. Mfume. "Never before have our numbers grown like this, almost in the twinkling of an eye. This gives us a tremendous leverage of power. When you consider that most major pieces of legislation are carried by 20 or so votes, we are talking about a potentially solid block of 39 votes in the House. We have the power to effect change like never before and the [congressional] leadership is aware of this. We have the potential to become a full partner in decision-making now rather than being just an addendum.
"In addition," he continues, "there is a clear indebtedness on the part of the new Clinton administration to black voters in general and members of the Congressional Black Caucus in particular. I am not saying this to threaten or cajole, but simply as a statement of fact."
But will the caucus fulfill this potential?
Some observers feel that the caucus has lost cohesiveness as it has grown in numbers and as its members have risen in seniority. On a number of notable occasions in recent years, individual members have balked at backing caucus initiatives.
"The caucus is not the only arena where black members can express their views now," noted an aide to Rep. Charles B. Rangel, D. N.Y. "Therefore, in some ways the caucus is diminished in its visibility. The sum of its parts is greater than the whole."
In fact, Mr. Mfume's colleagues lauded the four-term congressman's skills as a coalition builder following his election as caucus chair early this month. Mr. Mfume himself notes that the reach and influence of the caucus will be augmented by coalitions with other groups, most notably the Hispanic Caucus, which now has 19 members and the Progressive Caucus, which has nearly 50 members. Jewish members also have been supportive of Black Caucus initiatives, although they have not organized into a formal group.
"The bottom line is: Before, we played as well as we could with the hand we were dealt, and we managed to keep those issues important to people of color at the table," says Mr. Mfume. "Now, we have been dealt a much stronger hand. I am confident we will be much more effective."
Wiley Hall is a columnist for The Evening Sun.