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No real savings, sanity in cutting Congressional Black Caucus

THE BALTIMORE SUN

SOME REPUBLICAN Party plans to streamline Congress may improve government operations. Limiting committee chairmanships to six years, banning proxy voting and opening committee meetings to the public make sense. But the decision to eliminate legislative service organizations neither makes sense nor saves money. It is a sneak attack on the Congressional Black Caucus, and an ill-conceived and incendiary strategy in a time of strained race relations.

Money to fund the legislative service organizations comes from the office budget of each member of Congress. Dues range from a few hundred dollars to several thousand. The Republicans aren't suggesting that congressional office budgets be cut; their own high living would be imperiled if they did. Instead, they're making it harder for House members to work together to fund groups like the Congressional Black Caucus.

The caucuses are efficient working groups that deal with the collective concerns of their members, providing joint research and lobbying in cases where legislative interests converge. The 23-year-old Congressional Black Caucus has been a linchpin in the struggle for a progressive agenda, highlighting issues that presidents from Richard Nixon to Bill Clinton tried to ignore.

For years, their alternative budgets have pragmatically argued that social spending and deficit reduction can happen if we simply cut the military budget. The caucus isn't wandering in some isolated desert on the left: More than 100 members of the 102nd Congress supported the black caucus alternative.

Just like term limits, grounding the caucus may come back to haunt senior Republicans. The caucus was targeted because it is too liberal, too Democratic and, yes, too black. Other alliances will bite the dust because they are too Republican, too right wing, and too white.

To call the caucus too Democratic is to buy into the argument that all Democrats think alike. The group's ideological bent, though mostly liberal, ranges from the progressive politics of California Democrats Maxine Waters and Ron Dellums to the more pragmatic moderation of William Jefferson, D-La., and Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas. The membership comes from both urban and rural districts; such members as Cleo Fields, D-La., and Cynthia McKinney, D-Ga., are at risk because of judicial rulings on racial gerrymandering.

While the caucus has been a vehicle for the discussion of progressive issues and the impact of legislation on the nation's 35 million African Americans, its voting records show that the membership is not single-minded when the roll is called. Despite FTC an impassioned plea to reject the crime bill by Rep. William Clay, D-Mo., the caucus split 21 for and 16 against. The caucus split on the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, too, with most members supporting President Clinton despite their fear of job loss from the trade agreement.

But the same Republicans who champion market forces for everything from social services to school choice are now suppressing market demand for the black caucus. Why shouldn't members of Congress be allowed to spend their office budgets as they choose? Caucus members pool funds because working together is more efficient than working alone. If there were no market for caucus services, the group would disappear. But Republicans are afraid of the market of ideas, and so are trying to stifle one of their most vocal opponents.

Imagine the organized caucus response to the mean-spirited "Contract with America," the document that seems intent on defining America as white and middle class. The alternative budget of the caucus will only make more sense when Republicans start pushing for $190 billion in giveaways without telling taxpayers where the money is going to come from.

Numerically, the black caucus can't win a vote against the Republican congressional majority. But it can win the debate by making more sense. Also, they can articulate the concerns of the disenfranchised -- black people, poor people and others who see the Republican contract as a threat, not a promise.

In attempting to eliminate the black caucus, Republicans are acting out of fear, not out of a desire for efficiency. The Gingrinch who stole Christmas is at it again, trying to snatch the dreams and effective representation of the millions represented by the black caucus.

Julianne Malveaux, an economist and syndicated columnist, is a talk show host on WPFW-FM in Washington.

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