The Congressional Black Caucus and the Dilemmas of Progressive Politics

Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., joins the CBC Political Action Committee in endorsing Hillary Clinton. Feb. 11, 2016. Photo: J. Scott Applewhite/AP.
Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., joins the CBC Political Action Committee in endorsing Hillary Clinton. Feb. 11, 2016. Photo: J. Scott Applewhite/AP.

President Donald Trump’s request for White House correspondent April Ryan to “set up” a meeting with the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) in February stirred much controversy. Yet, it also threw the Caucus into mainstream conversations about its possible role in governance in the Trump Era. The President’s avowed cluelessness about the CBC, however, reflected a consistent indifference, or hostility, towards the Caucus that past presidents have shared. In 1971, Richard Nixon initially refused to meet with the CBC, leading to the Caucus threatening to boycott his State of the Union Address. Ronald Reagan ignored the CBC’s alternative budgets after challenging Democrats to devise their own spending plans. Even Barack Obama kept them at arm’s length.

While Obama’s presidency sidelined the Caucus, the Trump administration presents an opportunity for the CBC to reassert itself as an oppositional force. One way the CBC could do this is with their annual alternative budget. The CBC’s spending plan may become critical after Trump announced a $54 billion cut in non-defense programs and agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) while increasing military spending by $54 billion. But, such a strategy will only work if the CBC can organize grassroots progressives to support their plan.

Since its founding in the 1970s, the CBC has embedded itself deeper into the structures of beltway politics—earning seniority through reelection, seeking control of valued congressional committees, raising large sums of money from wealthy donors and corporate interests, and striving to rise in the Democratic Party’s ranks—despite its oppositional posture. The CBC now features its own Political Action Committee and Foundation, which has grown adept at raising money from wealthy donors. Like all members of Congress, many in the CBC seek to build relationships with lobbyists and corporate interests.

Founding members of the Congressional Black Caucus. L-R: Parren Mitchell, Charles Rangel, Bill Clay, Ron Dellums, George W. Collins, Louis Stokes, Ralph Metcalfe, John Conyers, and Walter Fauntroy. Seated L-R: Robert N.C. Nix, Sr., Charles Diggs, Shirley Chisholm, and Augustus F. Hawkins. Photo: US Congress.
Founding members of the Congressional Black Caucus. Photo: US Congress.

The CBC emerged as a critical voice following Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980. After meeting with President Reagan in February 1981, the Caucus released a statement criticizing the President’s aim to cut the federal budget.1 CBC members also castigated Reagan’s foreign policy. Caucus member and Pennsylvania Representative William H. Gray, III lambasted Reagan for supporting South Africa’s apartheid regime and its military support of the Junta in El Salvador.2

In his first address before a joint session of Congress, Reagan announced his intentions to cut federal spending. Seeking to fulfill his promise to slash taxes and reduce the federal government’s size, Reagan called for cutting federal spending by a little over $41 billion and cutting taxes by 30 percent over the next three years. He then concluded his speech by challenging his opponents to devise their own budget if they disagreed. “I would direct a question to those who have indicated already an unwillingness to accept such a plan: Have they an alternative which offers a greater chance of balancing the budget, reducing and eliminating inflation, stimulating the creation of jobs, and reducing the tax burden?”

The Democrats’ reactions to Reagan’s budget were mixed. In their televised response, Democrats opposed Reagan’s tax cut. However, Texas Democrat and House Majority Leader Jim Wright left room for compromise when he remarked to the New York Times, “There is much in the President’s program that most of us can enthusiastically embrace.” However, the CBC’s Walter Fauntroy took aim at the totality of Reagan’s proposed budget. He called it “cold and callous” and the “most extraordinary attempt…to redistribute income…with money (going) from the poor to the rich while the middle class comes out even.”3

The Caucus began drafting their budget after Reagan’s speech. Rather than advancing sweeping tax cuts, the CBC’s plan raised more revenues and allocated $25 billion to social programs. The CBC’s proposal restored funding for food stamps and college loans and earmarked $9 billion more for education and a little over $4 billion more for employment programs. Their alternative budget also rescued more environmental-friendly programs from cuts.4 Their plan featured a $1.5 billion deficit, smaller than Reagan’s spending plan.5

The CBC’s budget proposed a cut in defense spending, allocating $5.1 billion less than Reagan’s budget and cutting funds for a new bomber, aircraft carrier, and missile systems.6 Their defense cut reflected the group’s foreign policy stance. In a statement delivered by Gray, the Caucus invoked Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s conception of the “World House” to call for more peaceful and diplomatic approaches in U.S. foreign policy. The CBC stated that the U.S. should use its “economic and technological expertise” and its “commitment to the democratic process and human rights” in fighting the Cold War. Then the CBC listed several concrete steps to reach this goal, including allocating more development funds to African nations and supporting the United Nations’ arms embargo on apartheid South Africa.7

President Nixon meeting members of the Congressional Black Caucus, March 25, 1971. Photo: National Archives.
President Nixon meeting members of the Congressional Black Caucus, March 25, 1971. Photo: National Archives.

The Caucus failed to generate support for their budget. The Democrat-controlled House defeated the CBC’s plan, 356–69. According to the CBC’s director, Barbara Williams-Skinner, the CBC’s loss reflected the group’s inability to score consequential legislative wins. While Williams-Skinner partly blamed the political climate for the budget’s defeat, she maintained that the Caucus needed to concentrate on conducting research on messaging and how Reagan’s budgets would affect various constituencies.

Yet, was it possible for a small group of black legislators to advance a progressive agenda in the Reagan era, especially without grassroots support? This does not seem likely. The CBC and white liberals in Congress were marginalized in the Democratic Party, especially as the party drifted to the right. The Democrats, led by Speaker Thomas “Tip” O’Neill, resolved themselves to compromise with Reagan and the Congressional Republicans on their spending plan. In addition to defeating the CBC budget, House Democrats joined with Republicans to vote down another alternative spending bill produced by liberal Democrats.

Fauntroy correctly suggested that the CBC needed grassroots support to pressure Congress for a more progressive budget. However, the CBC failed to harness the opposition to Reagan that was developing among African Americans in cities such as Chicago. It is also unclear whether the CBC was structurally and politically capable of harvesting support for their agenda from black and progressive protests against Reagan’s welfare cuts, military interventions in Latin America, South African apartheid, and other policies. Additionally, the opposition to the President failed to develop into a consequential social movement with the capacity to reverse the momentum of Reaganism. The anti-apartheid movement’s challenge to the Reagan administration’s stance on South Africa represented one of the few exceptions for the left.

The CBC has released an alternative budget virtually every year, but Presidents have ignored them. Few journalists pay attention to them either. Part of the problem is that despite the CBC’s desires to produce an alternative budget with nods to progressive policies such as government-funded jobs programs, the silence around their alternatives reflects the Caucus’s marginalization within the Democratic Party and Congress. And unlike the recent rise of the Tea Party contingent within the Republican congressional caucus, the CBC is not as connected with logical allies—black-led social movements and grassroots progressives.

However, a social movement strategy is also in tension with the CBC’s practice of elite brokerage and interest group politics. While the CBC often dealt with Republican presidents as outsiders, they worked within structures and rhythms of Congress and the Beltway. Meanwhile, right- and left-wing populism has not only emerged to challenge beltway politics, but also to question interventionist and imperialist foreign policy, free market orthodoxy, and globalization—aspects of neoliberal governance that many establishment Democrats (including some CBC members) and Republicans support to varying degrees. It is possible that the attack on neoliberalism from the left and the right has opened an opportunity for the CBC to at least reassert a more progressive budget. Yet, the Caucus must resolve this tension to gain legitimacy among the Bernie Sanders/progressive wing of the Party, which may be poised to wield more influence among Democrats and in U.S. politics more generally. This will require members of the CBC to give up beltway politics and fully embrace grassroots progressives, African Americans, workers of all hues (especially in southern states), and already-existing social movements.

  1. Congressional Black Caucus, “Press Release,” Harold Washington Pre-Mayoral Records, U.S. Congressional Records, February 3, 1981, box 11, folder 14, Harold Washington Library Center, Chicago Public Library.
  2.  U.S. Representative William H. Gray, III., “Statement,” Harold Washington U.S. Congressional Records, March 26, 1981, box 11, folder 32, HWAC, CPL.
  3.  Quoted in “Black Caucus Offers a Budget Alternative,” Boston Globe, March 19, 1981.
  4. Ellen Hume, “Stresses Social Programs: Black Caucus Offers an Alternative Budget,” Los Angeles Times, March 19, 1981.
  5. “Black Caucus Offers a Budget Alternative.”
  6. Hume, “Stresses Social Programs: Black Caucus Offers an Alternative Budget.”
  7.  Gray, “Statement.”

Austin McCoy

Austin McCoy is a Mellon Humanities Postdoctoral Fellow in Egalitarianism and the Metropolis at the University of Michigan. He recently completed his dissertation, analyzing the development of left-wing politics in the Midwest between 1967 and 1988. His research and teaching interests include African American history, political economy, labor, social movements and activism, and hip hop culture. Follow him on Twitter @AustinMcCoy3.