WASHINGTON – Members of the most diverse Congress in U.S. history vow to wield their power in the House Democratic Caucus to push for voting rights, criminal justice reforms and affordable health care – at the very least.
And they definitely want a seat at the leadership table.
Nearly a quarter – at least 91 with some races still being counted – of the incoming 116th Congress will be lawmakers of color, most of them Democrats. In the new Democratic majority, nearly half of the members are of color and could shape the party’s agenda in ways they’ve never been able to.
It will be the “most diverse from top to bottom of the class that you’ve ever seen,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., longtime member of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Here’s how the post-election numbers stack up so far for the mostly Democratic minority caucuses:
- The Congressional Black Caucus will have a record of at least 55 African-American House members, up from 46.
- The Congressional Hispanic Caucus expects to increase its 29 House members by two to three, also a record.
- The Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, now at a record 16 House members, could also add at least two.
Lawmakers of color told USA TODAY they will demand more diversity at all levels of House leadership. Minority members “deserve their share of representation,” Thompson said.
The voting bloc seeks “diversity in elected leadership, diversity in chairs, diversity in subcommittee chairs, diversity in staff, diversity in some of the exclusive committees, in which people have the opportunity to appoint,” said Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y.
In a nod to that push, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California is proposing to make permanent the Democrat’s House Diversity Initiative, a clearinghouse and resource for candidates of color looking for jobs on Capitol Hill. The initiative would also be expanded to include the entire chamber.
The proposal will be included in one of the first measures Congress votes on next year.
“We know that the diversity in our ranks is a strength and a reflection of the American people that it is our great honor to serve,” Pelosi, who is running for Speaker of the House, wrote in a letter Thursday to members.
Lawmakers of color and civil rights groups have long complained about the lack of diversity among congressional staffers and have pushed for members to hire more staffers of color in Washington and in their district offices.
“There’s a lot to be done across the board,” said Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C.
Lawmakers also said that diversity should extend to heads of key committees and appointments to select panels.
About a half-dozen black House members have seniority and could become chairs of committees and subcommittees, which has “positive ramifications for black political concerns,” said Adolphus Belk Jr., a political scientist and professor of African American Studies at Winthrop University.
Those lawmakers are in line to chair powerful committees and subcommittees with jurisdiction over the 2020 Census, immigration, health care, voting rights and criminal justice reform. They include:
- Bennie Thompson of Mississippi at Homeland Security
- Elijah Cummings of Maryland at Oversight and Government Reform
- Maxine Waters of California at Financial Services
- Nydia Velázquez of New York at Small Business
- Raúl Grijalva of Arizona at Natural Resources
- Mark Takano of California at Veterans’ Affairs
Some CBC members have said it’s time for an African-American to head the Democratic leadership and that Clyburn is a credible candidate.
Now assistant Democratic leader, Clyburn said Wednesday he won’t challenge Pelosi for speaker. He’s running, again, for majority whip.
“I do plan to do what is necessary to remain at the leadership table,” he said in a recent interview with USA TODAY. “I learned when I was majority whip how to count … You have to look at what the margins are.”
Meeks said there are also others qualified to join the House leadership.
“People make an assumption that you can only have one African-American in leadership,” he said. “That doesn’t make sense to me.”
New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, a CBC member, said Thursday he’s running for Democratic Caucus chair. That puts him up against fellow caucus member Rep. Barbara Lee of California.
Belk said there may also be a push for younger lawmakers of color in leadership.
“People are going to want to see some deliverables for having given their support,” he said of voters.
Several of the caucuses’ new members will be among the record number of women of color in the freshman class.
“It helps us drive more of an agenda,” said Louisiana Rep. Cedric Richmond, chairman of the CBC, which will be one of the largest blocs in the chamber.
On issues, the so-called Tri-Caucus has worked together on immigration reform and to oppose the Trump’s administration’s move to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census, among other issues.
The groups also have been crucial to key votes, including passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010.
“We felt that we’ve had this clout, but the great thing is there are more that have been added to our numbers, which make our voices even more powerful,” said Judy Chu, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus.
Going forward, they aim to restore a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act requiring some states with a history of discrimination to clear election changes through the Department of Justice.
But the caucuses face hurdles next session to passing legislation, which must also get through the Republican-controlled Senate and a Republican White House.
Chu said the caucuses can block some of the Trump administration policies viewed as harmful.
“We can stop the worst things from going through,’’ she said.
And she said there are some issues they may be able to work on with Republicans, including infrastructure projects.
There has been bipartisan support for criminal justice reforms, which includes eliminating mandatory minimum sentencing for some nonviolent drug offenses.
Unlike when Republicans controlled the House, the groups said they will be able to help set the agenda, hold hearings and push through legislation.
“That is a big bloc of votes and that’s going to make a difference when it comes to doing certain things,’’ said Belk.
But amid those gains, minority lawmakers still make up a small segment of Congress, Belk said.
“Even with these more racially and ethnically diverse Congresses, it’s still majority white and majority men,” he said. “Some of that diversity has improved over time, but people are still underrepresented.”
Many black caucus members, including Clyburn, campaigned for candidatesacross the country to help usher in some of Tuesday’s historic Democratic wins. They were also instrumental in get-out-the-vote efforts, particularly in minority communities.
“We worked hard to get it done,’’ Richmond said. “We have some really, really talented people coming from all ages, all walks of life. And the truth of it is most of them don’t represent majority minority districts. I think it’s going to be good times.”
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