Mfume debuts as chair of economic committee


WASHINGTON -- When the Labor Department delivers its monthly unemployment report to Congress, sometimes the most exciting thing that happens is that someone displays a flow chart.

The proceedings were a bit more stimulating yesterday, when Rep. Kweisi Mfume debuted as the newly elected chairman of the Joint Economic Committee.

The Baltimore Democrat eschewed technical talk of job statistics and market rates for a homily about the gritty facts of inner-city crime.

Breaking off a discussion of the inflation rate, he worried about the troubles of urban youth:

"Young people who cannot find work, who are out of work, who have idle minds and who are often times given to the temptations that may be around them -- I don't want to pontificate on the subject except to say that it is something that concerns me. . . ."

But it's Mr. Mfume's committee now, and he can pontificate if he wants.

For an ambitious Democrat who has made plain his desire to rise in the House leadership, what could be better than to chair a panel that allows him to advance his agenda? The committee handles no legislation; its mission is to process and analyze the government's economic data.

Historically, the panel has stuck to a dry economic script. But the new chairman says he wants to take a more confrontational tack.

Mr. Mfume was elected chairman of the Joint Economic Committee last month, after Rep. David R. Obey, a Wisconsin Democrat, stepped down as chairman to become head of the House Appropriations Committee.

To put a personal stamp on the panel, Mr. Mfume wants to enlist more blacks, Hispanics and women to serve on the 43-member committee.

In committee business, Mr. Mfume hopes to steer questions to real-life issues.

Yesterday he questioned government economists about the trends behind unemployment in black communities, asking them explain why black teen-agers are out of work at twice the rate of whites.

The Labor Department experts, unaccustomed to Mr. Mfume's line of questioning at committee meetings, offered statistics and data but little analysis.

"We're just really not in a position to be able to give opinions," said Katharine G. Abraham, commissioner of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, who regularly delivers the economic reports to the committee.

"I guess we haven't typically gotten questions about the African-Americans in the labor force," Ms. Abraham said later. "That's obviously a special and particular interest of his."

But Mr. Mfume could not ignore the central business at hand, which is rather technical.

As the witnesses' economic jargon supplanted everyday English, an aide sitting beside the congressman became more animated. He scribbled on a legal pad, passed notes to Mr. Mfume, whispered in the lawmaker's ear and pointed to graphs as the economists rattled off numbers and percentages in the background.

At best, committee aides say, about two or three lawmakers show up for the monthly briefings. On Mr. Mfume's opening day, attendance was worse, because Congress is in recess and most lawmakers are home in their districts.

So when Mr. Mfume indulged in the rituals entitled only to the chairman, no fellow lawmakers witnessed the ceremony.

But when the Baltimore congressman declared the hearing a success, no skeptical colleague could raise an eyebrow.

When three television cameras circled the room, Mr. Mfume was the only lawmaker to appear before them.

That's not always such a bad place to be. Mr. Mfume seems delighted to be the committee's new star player.

"I take it as another challenge," he said. "We're going to have fun."

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