By Charles D. Ellison, Special to the NNPA from The Philadelphia Tribune –
WASHINGTON — In sync with what football fanatics expect will be a bruising Super Bowl Sunday, political tensions on Capitol Hill are as hot as an Egyptian street fight with Democrats and Republicans poised for a bloody face-off over the nation’s finances. It’s the necessary, crucial time of year lawmakers love to hate, pushing their staffers to sweat over bulky Power Points and black ink in a complicated cage dance over how the federal government spends taxpayer money.
“The budget is a bold declaration of a nation’s priorities,” argues Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-MO), the loquacious Methodist minister and former Kansas City Mayor who barely squeaked past a Republican challenge in his district during the 2010 mid-term election. “I always tell my church that if you want to know who a person is, look at their checkbook and how they handle their finances.” Back from what some observers described as near political death, Emmanuel sounds revived and recharged in his new role as two-year Chair of the Caucus, eager to tussle — and possibly deal — with conservative budget hawks circling over endless rows of line items.
Hill heads were turning and brows raised last week when the Caucus unveiled its budget recommendations for the year in a politico-studded event of the African-American Who’s Who in Washington, billing it as the first ever annual “Commission on the Budget Deficit, Economic Crisis and Wealth Creation.” Indeed it was a “first,” keeping in fashion with the dusty classroom clamor of Black History Month firsts and patronizing accolades.
The Caucus, that tightly-knit and reliably Democratic voting bloc that acts as a noisy thorn in the side of House Republicans, had been clowned for years about “the budget no one ever knows about,” quipped one amused and longtime senior Congressional aide at a recent staffer gathering. Press conferences and CBC Member statements were typically sporadic, with the CBC unable to coordinate an authoritative voice in annual budget swordfights.
Starting this year, Cleaver promises to change all that with an aggressive campaign waged on the Hill and beyond Washington. “You will find that, at least for the next two years, we will dramatize the CBC budget,” says Cleaver. “It is useless for us to present a budget that is virtually useless beyond the Beltway.”
As important to Cleaver is ensuring that the CBC agenda on national spending priorities resonates loud and clear with a core Black audience disproportionately crushed under the weight of a seemingly endless recession. While White House officials express cautious jubilance over the latest unemployment figures, with official rates dropping from 9.4 percent in December to an even 9 percent in January, attitudes in CBC offices are more reluctant. Black unemployment, for a multitude of reasons, remains stuck near 20 percent — officially. Many economists observing the situation are a bit more frank about the situation, and Caucus Members seem less inclined to celebrate incremental drops in high unemployment when they head back to districts where countless constituents are underemployed, out of benefits or off the grid.
“In Black America we need to stop the bleeding,” warns Cleaver.
As a prescription, the CBC Commission presented a three-prong approach, with prominent Black economists and Caucus Members mingling over topics such as: the balancing act between resource demand and fiscal restraint; getting in recession survival mode while “accelerating the recovery;” and finding ways to responsibly reduce the deficit without hitting damaged communities any harder.
“I am actually pretty excited about this,” says Emory University political science professor Andra Gillespie, author of Whose Black Politics?, a study on generational divides in modern African-American politics. Gillespie teaches an annual class on the CBC budget and, so far, she’s impressed with the presentation for 2011. “They’re ahead of the curve on this one. They’ve managed the public relations on this pretty well,” said Gillespie.
But, Gillespie — like many other CBC watchers — warns against what she sees as an ingrained habit of drinking old wine in a new bottle. The academic yearns for some legislative creativity from the Caucus. “Because every year [the CBC budget is] usually very predictable in what it suggests. There are still some things in the budget that are unrealistic. It can’t be just saying ‘no social program can be cut.’”
At this point, with political power greatly diminished by the loss of Democratic majority last November, mixing it up by camera, web and microphone is about as good as it gets for the embattled Caucus. Putting a stop to economic hemorrhaging in the Black community means the CBC will need to raise its game in a process where political dynamics are as complex and critical as the policy proposed. Budget handling is an annual Washington sport, a hazing maze of winners and losers — with a lot of stalemates in a creamy middle. But, the stakes are particularly much higher this year with Members of all partisan stripes (even freshman oriented tea partiers), faced with almost impossible balancing between walking home federal bacon and talking bank account restraint. For a Member like Cleaver, that’s even more precarious given the tenuous political situation in his Missouri district, where he’ll be backed into forced moderation by more conservative Midwestern constituents and representing a population that is less than 30 percent African American.
It could be a reason why he’s put the Caucus in front of the process, say observers, a shrewd and glitzy media move aimed at driving the discussion weeks before an anxiously anticipated drop of the massive Obama Administration FY 2012 budget. The CBC Commission, while days after President Barack Obama’s State of the Union, was still ahead of House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) announcement recommending $32 billion in across-the-board spending cuts, including mind-numbing 20 percent agency budget cuts. Not only does it prompt both Congressional leaders and the White House to think clearly about the implications of budget choices on disadvantaged communities, it’s also an attempt to get an elbow in the discussion.
The problem, however, are incessantly partisan legislators searching for compromise in a sea where there is little of it. “How are we going to pay for last year’s tax cut?” asks Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), the bookish Black Caucus point-man on all things budget and the guy now best known for his voluminous amicus-like brief arguing against the censure of colleague Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.). Scott believes the $850 billion tax cut compromise between President Obama and Senate Republicans has exacerbated an irreconcilable situation. “Nobody complains about how big it is, but everyone complains about how big this budget deficit is,” says Scott, pointing to the $1.4 trillion dollar federal deficit.
“Suggesting that you cut taxes before you cut spending is absurd,” adds Scott, ridiculing GOP plans for simultaneous tax cuts and what he argues are “draconian” spending cuts. Between Republican insistence on cutting and Democratic hopes for more federal spending, Scott is pessimistic about the chances of a bipartisan agreement during this budget cycle.
And when asked if the White House is giving any sign of absorbing any of the CBC recommendations, Scott’s voice seemed to retreat, masking any hint of what are widely known and infamous tensions between the Caucus and their former Member. “We make our recommendations and see what comes out.”
“We’ll see what’s in the bill,” added Scott. “It can’t be so good because we spent all the money last year.”
“I don’t see where the middle is on this,” agrees Artemesia Stanberry, political science professor at North Carolina Central University, a former CBC staffer and co-author of Stealth Reconstruction. “They’re not talking the same language. The middle ground was the tax cut compromise.”