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Old bills, new legislators.

During last September's Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) annual gathering of the nation's African-American political elite, much ado was made of the CBC's legislative "portfolio." In 1992, the 26 CBC members sponsored more than 400 pieces of legislation and cosponsored 11,000 more bills.

Some bills were high profile: Missouri Democrat William L. Clay sponsored the Family and Medical Leave Act. Some bills were low-key but important: Tennessee Democrat Harold E. Ford sponsored a bill to provide a grant program for minority students in science. But neither bill ended up being signed into law--showing the black legislative agenda to be no more immune to the gridlock afflicting Washington, D.C., than is the rest of Congress.

But as a new, more racially, ethnically and gender-diverse Congress meets this month, there is almost a palpable sense among black legislators that the nation is on the cusp of real change. Two prime reasons underpin that feeling. The anti-incumbent mood brings more than 125 new legislators to Washington and should swell the ranks of minority lawmakers by 40%. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, many observers think the public's agenda is shadowing the black agenda. All Americans, for once, share the same concerns: jobs, jobs and more jobs and low-cost health care.

This convergence of legislation and ideas heartens black legislators. John Lewis, D-Ga., the country's ranking black congressman says, "The arithmetic [of new members of Congress] means we're going to have a major impact. And high on the agenda will be coming up with a program to stimulate the economy: a massive jobs creation program."

The search for jobs will take lace on a broad front. One effort is to ensure that black workers and entrepreneurs get a fair slice of government contracts to fix America's decaying infrastructure. The fact that many of the new black legislators hail from rural districts also widens the concerns of the historically urban-led CBC.

But that doesn't mean big-city issues have gone away. The last Congress didn't do much for cities despite the Los Angeles riots, nor has it alleviated the tragic condition of other urban areas. The CBC said a minimum of $30.9 billion was needed for job training, education, housing and community development. The emergency urban aid package ended up totaling only $1.1 billion--and some of that money was used by Hurricane Andrew's victims.

Black lawmakers also plan to continue to push for more aid for Caribbean and African nations. If a lot of these programs sound familiar, they are. In fact, most were introduced by black lawmakers during the 102nd Congress.

In the words of Rep. Edolphus Towns, a New York Democrat chairing the CBC, the past two years have been marked by "exhilarating victories, but admittedly some alarming losses." For instance, CBC members take pride in having helped force President Bush to sign the 1991 Civil Rights Act. But they also acknowledge that the bill's white authors--Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D.-Mass.) and Rep. Jack Brooks (D-Texas)--sought to defuse Bush's quota rhetoric by pitching it to women supporters.

In another instance, CBC member, William L. Clay (D-Mo.), spotlighted one of the contradictions of the Bush administration. Clay was author of the Family and Medical Leave bill, which put the rhetorically pro-family president on the defensive. Last fall, Bush vetoed the bill, as he had in 1990, and Congress again was not able to override the veto.

As the new Congress meets, the CBC is reviewing bills thwarted by 12 years of Republican rule. The body is buoyed by both an influx of new members and having more members in influential positions. These changes may reduce gridlock and get the agenda of African-Americans moving again.
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Author:Davis, Phillip A.
Publication:Black Enterprise
Date:Jan 1, 1993
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