WASHINGTON -- The chairmen of the Congressional Black and Hispanic caucuses yesterday denounced a House Republican move to strip the budgets and staffs of the caucuses as an attempt to muffle voices certain to be critical of many items on the Republican agenda.
"In reality, this is a lame attempt by some to undermine the power of minorities in Congress," Rep. Kweisi Mfume, a Baltimore Democrat who is the outgoing chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said at a news conference.
The proposal, contained in a resolution approved Tuesday by House Republicans, would limit the activities of the black and Hispanic caucuses, as well as of 26 other so-called "legislative service organizations." The measure must be approved by the full House before it can take effect, although approval is expected.
In addition to the Black Caucus and Hispanic Caucus, the targeted caucuses include the Arts Caucus, the Children and Families Caucus, the Human Rights Caucus, the Hunger Caucus, the Narcotics Abuse and Control Caucus, and the Women's Issues Caucus.
Those caucuses receive taxpayer support in the form of dues paid from members' staff budgets and, in some cases, in the form of free office space. The 28 groups can continue to operate -- but without the benefit of 96 staff members and office space dedicated solely to their work. Instead, the groups will be forced to rely on staff members on loan from members' congressional offices.
That change has angered members of many of the caucuses because it is likely to hamper the groups' ability to stake out and publicize their positions on issues.
That change could prove especially damaging to the black and Hispanic caucuses in the next Congress, because the Republican leadership is pursuing an agenda that would require deep cuts in social and urban programs. Those cuts are certain to be opposed by many black and Hispanic members of Congress.
"The black and Hispanic caucuses have always defended the interests of the working poor and our nation's children," said Rep. Jose Serrano, a New York City Democrat who chairs the Hispanic Caucus. "As [the Republicans] hurry to push through their Contract on America's working poor and children, they would squash the most vocal opponents of their extreme and mean-spirited policies."
After the news conference by Mr. Mfume and Mr. Serrano, leaders of the Democratic Study Group, which analyzes legislation, complained just as bitterly. Rep. David R. Obey, a Wisconsin Democrat, asserted that the Republicans were trying to "destroy the ability of individual members of the House" to receive information about legislation.
The Republican action to cut financial support to the caucuses comes on top of cuts in committee staffs, which will make it harder for Democrats to push their agenda.
Republicans countered with a news conference of their own, saying that the legislative service organizations should operate under House ethics rules, without public funding.
"Realizing the place is under new management will go a long way," said Rep. Bill Thomas of California, who will take over the newly named Oversight Committee that will be in charge of House operations.
While the Republican action yesterday would cut off taxpayer funding of the caucuses, it would not affect more than 110 other caucuses that do not receive taxpayer support. Nor would the change affect nonprofit foundations that have sprung up to buttress the work of some of the legislative service organizations.
The Black Caucus Foundation, for instance, serves as a black "think tank" to analyze public policy. The privately funded organization, whose board includes several black members of Congress, has a budget of $5 million and is dedicated to analyzing public policy and increasing the number of blacks who take part in national policy debates.
The Republicans who supported the measure to cut off funding to the legislative organizations denied having any partisan motives. They noted that several Republican groups would be hurt by the change, although more Democratic-leaning groups would be affected. Also, they said, many caucuses function as taxpayer-supported special-interest groups. Worse, they said, some groups spent money on such items as liquor and a Caribbean trip.