WASHINGTON -- The speaker of the House has recommended that Rep. Kweisi Mfume be elected chairman of the Joint Economic Committee, a plum that would broaden the Baltimore Democrat's congressional resume while making him the first black to control the influential panel.
The Joint Economic Committee does not handle legislation, but it employs a staff of economists charged with making an annual economic report to Congress. The panel also conducts monthly hearings, at which the Bureau of Labor Statistics unveils national unemployment figures, and serves as a kind of economic think tank for Congress.
Mr. Mfume's appointment could come in a matter of days, depending on when the committee meets to elect a chairman to fill out the term of Rep. David R. Obey, who is stepping aside to concentrate on his new role as chairman of the Appropriations Committee. Mr. Obey, a Wisconsin Democrat, assumed the chairmanship of Appropriations in March, succeeding the late Rep. William H. Natcher of Kentucky.
House Speaker Thomas S. Foley said yesterday that he had recommended Mr. Mfume for the chairmanship, calling him "extremely well-qualified." Mr. Mfume, who holds degrees from Morgan State and Johns Hopkins universities, is a member of the House Banking Committee.
The expected elevation of Mr. Mfume would give him a platform from which he can address a variety of issues. In the past two fTC years, the committee has issued reports and held hearings on topics ranging from technology and economic policy, to economic diplomacy with Japan, to the economic and social costs of teen-age pregnancy.
"It's a tremendous opportunity," Mr. Mfume said. "I hope to use the rest of the term to help shape the discussion on national economic policy."
The appointment should allow Mr. Mfume to assume an even more prominent role in Congress, where he has become something of a media star since being elected chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus in January 1993.
The black caucus grew after the 1992 elections from 26 to 40 members, a size that has given it a pivotal role in some close House votes. Mr. Mfume, as its chairman, has become a player on important legislation, including the Clinton tax and deficit-reduction package.
He has won the respect of colleagues by being willing to negotiate while trying to protect the interests of African-Americans and other minority groups.
Although the black caucus chairmanship -- which will go to another member next year -- has given Mr. Mfume wide visibility, the higher profile has also caused him some political pain. In recent months, for instance, he has been criticized in some quarters for trying to forge a working relationship between the caucus and the Nation of Islam.
As chairman of the Joint Economic Committee, Mr. Mfume should face no such pitfalls. Meanwhile, he will be able to command a wide audience on subjects vital to all Americans. Among them: federal monetary policy, interest rates and strategies to combat unemployment.
"It is a distinct honor to be chairman of the committee," saiStephen Hess, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "You're given a platform. What you say for now on gets said by the chairman of the Joint Economic Committee, not just a member of the House from Baltimore."
Having the chairmanship also should help the long-term career aspirations of Mr. Mfume, who in the past has made no secret of his desire to be speaker of the House and has been ambitious since entering Congress in January 1987.
Last year, he began to tell colleagues that he was thinking of running for the fourth-highest leadership position in the House, chairman of the Democratic Caucus. But he decided not to run for the post, clearing the way for Rep. Vic Fazio of California, the vice chairman of the Democratic Caucus, who had been jockeying for the job.
If Mr. Mfume is elected chairman of the economic committee, his term would end with adjournment of the current Congress in October. During the next Congress, the post will revert to a senator. "It will be sort of an abbreviated maiden voyage," Mr. Mfume said.
But if Mr. Mfume remains on the committee and Democrats retain control of Congress, he would be in line for a full two-year chairmanship in January 1997.
Another Marylander, Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, chaired the committee from 1987 to 1989 and from 1991 to 1993.