Black Political Power is Exaggerated
by George E. Curry
The annual Self-Congratulation Political Weekend in Washington, D.C., formally known as the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s Annual Legislative Conference and informaly known as CBC Weekend, is over. But after a series of feel-good panel discussions, members of Congress darting in and our of rooms, and even a speech by President Barack Obama --with requisite non-stop partying thrown in for good measure – the true needs of most African Americans are no closer to becoming a reality than before Black political junkies descended on the nation’s capital for the gathering.
To be fair, there is much to celebrate. The CBC has grown from 13 members when it was established in 1971 to 42 numbers, not counting “Dollar Bill” Jefferson, who is on his way to a federal prison.
House Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) is the third-ranking Democrat, four African Americans chair important House committees and 17 head subcommittees, and a former CBC member is now president of the United States.
However, before you start signing “Happy Days Are Here Again,” let’s put things in perspective. When you add one African-American senator to the 42 House members, including two who can’t vote except in committee, that’s only 43 out of 535 members of the House and Senate, which is 8 percent.
It sounds good to say that the president is a former member of the CBC, though he wasn’t all that active and never took on a leadership role in the caucus. But the sad truth is that for many reasons, including his need to be president of “all people,” Barack Obama is much more moderate than most members of the liberal Congressional Black Caucus.
Consequently, he is more willing to make compromises that may, in the end, not serve the best interest of most African Americans. That does not mean he isn’t concerned about issues that are paramount to Blacks. Instead, that simply means that he is a politician doing what politicians do best – compromise.
The combination of a president determined to govern from the center of the political spectrum and limited African-American representation in Congress can sometimes spell bad news for Blacks. The debate over whether the public option will be part of health care legislation making its way through Congress is a case in point.
Of nearly 50 million Americans without health insurance, most are people of color. Therefore, in some instances, this is a matter of life and death.
Candidate Barack Obama was clear in his belief that in order to drive down medical costs, the federal government needed to provide a public option, similar to Medicare, that would provide competition that would force the insurance companies to offer more reasonably priced premiums, discontinue turning away those with pre-existing conditions and removing caps on how much coverage they will provide those in need.
But President Obama is now singing a different tune. While reiterating his preference for a public option, he has scolded fellow Democrats, urging them to be open to other alternatives. In his recent speech before a joint session of Congress, President Obama said that under his plan, it is acceptable that the public option be extended to small businesses and people without any coverage, a figure he estimated to be less than 5 percent.
To bring back an old TV commercial and refrain from an earlier presidential campaign: Where’s the beef?
Extending the public option to less than 5 percent of the population while leaving more than 95 percent of the public to rely on the whim of private insurers is not my idea of change we can believe in.
NAACP President Benjamin Jealous pointed out the hypocrisy of conservatives who normally tout the advantages of a free market yet favor non-competition when it comes to health care. They object to a public option in which the federal government would infuse more competition into the $2.5 trillion a year health care industry.
According to statistics compiled by the Kaiser Family Foundation, insurance premiums have risen each year between 5 percent and 14 percent. Over that same period, wages have increase only 2 percent to 4 percent, meaning Americans must use more of their income for insurance.
“What a public option is all about is trying to give Americans the very essence of free market capitalism, choice and competition,” Jealous told reporters.
Both the CBC and President Obama are very good with words. The CBC has issued statements arguing that the public option should be incorporated into any health care reform proposal that becomes law.
In his speech to the CBC Saturday night, President Obama was eloquent as usual. He said, “This economic crisis has made the problem in the communities of color much worse.” He said the crisis has hit those groups “with particular ferocity.”
But being sensitive using the right language is no substitute for direct action. Having an African-American president and Blacks holding a record number of leadership position in Congress is meaningless if in the end, they can’t bring about real change for those who need it the most.
George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine and the NNPA News Service, is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach. He can be reached through his Web site, www.georgecurry.com.