By Earl Ofari Hutchinson
WASHINGTON - Old and new House Republicans wasted no time in keeping the biggest and most controversial promise they made to their backers—to repeal President Obama’s health care reform package. The first vote has been scheduled for January 12. The Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) and Obama must join hands tightly to make sure the GOP effort goes nowhere.
But much more than health care reform is at stake for the CBC and Obama. House Republicans have vowed to cut spending by tens of billions of dollars; to cap the debt ceiling to ensure there’s no new funding for education, transportation, urban infrastructure, unemployment benefits, job training, and small businesses; and to make an all-out attempt to privatize Medicare and Social Security.
Their pledges amount to updated version of the Newt Gingrich-led House revolt in 1994. That year, halfway through Bill Clinton’s first term, the GOP regained control of Congress and launched a barrage of anti-spending bills and endless probes into the personal and business dealings of the president and his wife. The idea was to push Clinton to the right, derail his programs, and ultimately make him a one-term president. The game plan this time around is the exactly the same.
Every one of the GOP’s planned cuts in domestic spending—from health care to education to social programs—would be catastrophic for African Americans, Latinos and the poor. The Republican takeover has put the CBC in an especially tenuous position. Blacks lost three committee chairmanships and a dozen subcommittee chairs. Two of those committees, Ways and Means and Judiciary, have vritual control over budget, spending, and criminal justice reform initiatives.
Yet these losses do not represent a total wipeout. They mean that the CBC and Obama will be forced to do what the CBC and Clinton did from 1995 through 2000—to counter with a strategy to minimize the potential damage to the interests of minorities and the poor. During those years, African-American lawmakers and the White House proved adept at forming coalitions with some Republicans and closely coordinating legislative initiatives on vital areas of policy. The CBC suffered some serious setbacks—most notably, the passage of Clinton’s welfare “reform” bill and the erosion of habeas corpus rights for criminal defendants—but also had some degree of success. Members helped cajole a grudging Congress to create the State Children’s Health Program, expanded the Earned Income Tax Credit, and sharply limited the number and amount of cutbacks in education and health programs.
The CBC achieved these gains through negotiation, compromise, and waging tactical battles to preserve key domestic programs. Black lawmakers and Clinton got a huge boost from the monumental arrogance and overreaching of Gingrich and House GOP leaders, who threatened to shut down the government if Republicans did not get the deep budget cuts they were demanding. Clinton and the CBC called their bluff, the American public was outraged at the GOP’s efforts to hijack the government, and House GOP leaders were forced to backpedal fast. By turning the tables on them, Clinton was able to paint the GOP as intransigent, obstructionist, and a major threat to the interests of working-class Americans—and he cruised to reelection in 1996.
The good news is that, unlike 16 years ago, the Senate remains in Democratic hands. Yet in some ways, the threat this time around is even graver. Black joblessness is double that of white males, and among young black males in some urban areas, unemployment has reached 1930 Great Depression levels. A stunningly disproportionate number of blacks make up the 50 million Americans without health care coverage. Blacks also make up the majority of inmates in America’s jails and prisons. One in three African-Americans lives at or below the poverty level, and dropout rates in some inner-city schools approach 50 percent.
The CBC challenged President Obama in December 2009 to declare a state of emergency on the crisis of black joblessness. That didn’t happen, and it’s even less likely to happen now. However, the CBC and Obama will compromise where they can and push back where they must on crucial legislation and initiatives to prevent the crisis from deepening among working people, minorities, and the poor. The first major test of the CBC’s and Obama’s skill at maneuvering in the radically changed political climate on Capitol Hill will be the battle to protect health care reform.
A Democratic president and the CBC have survived the erosion of their powers before. They did not fade quietly into the political night or roll over and play dead. They managed to hold the line and make some headway on reforms. They can do the same again—but only by standing together in the 112th Congress as never before.