With a stinging budget defeat behind them and unemployment in the black community soaring to 16 percent, members of the Congressional Black Caucus say they’re done waiting for Barack Obama to fight their battles for them.
Instead, the 43 African-American lawmakers say they’re taking matters into their own hands and will carry the fight to Tea Party Republicans, whom they blame for Obama’s latest lurch to the right.
“The Tea Party discovered something. That is if they organize, if they talk loud enough, if they threaten, if they register to vote and elect a few people, they can take over the Congress of the United States,” said Rep. Maxine Waters. “They called our bluff and we blinked. We should have made them walk the plank.”
Waters was speaking in Atlanta, a stop on the CBC’s five-city job fair and town-hall tour now making its way across the country. On the same day Obama left Washington for a 10-day Martha’s Vineyard vacation, eight caucus members hosted a crowd of nearly 5,000 out-of-work Georgians who had flocked to event for the rare chance to meet recruiters from companies that can actually hire them.
The scene outside the event told the story of the black community, whose jobless rate is more than 50 percent above the national average and spikes as high as 39.2 percent for young African-Americans.
Dressed in dark suits, knotted ties, and shined leather shoes, men and women stood for up to five hours in a line that stretched four and five people deep as it snaked and switched back across the Atlanta Technical College campus. Some held umbrellas against the Georgia sun, while most fanned themselves with a few fresh resumes. Once inside, they could visit booths set up by prospective employers, smile, shake hands, and hope to make an impression. At least, many said, it was something to do.
At the town-hall meeting that followed the fair, Waters and other CBC members told 200 or so attendees that everyone, from members of Congress to folks in the seats, needed to start doing more or suffer the consequences at the hands of Tea Party–aligned Republicans back in Washington.
Waters called the summer of 2011 a “defining moment” for her and the African-American community, especially as Capitol Hill’s new supercommittee gears up to slash federal spending further this fall.
“The people want us to fight. They want us to stand up,” Waters said. “We are going to be insistent that what comes out in September is going to reflect the experiences that we have had.”
Looking back on the summer, several CBC members acknowledged that the freshman class of Tea Party Republicans had out-hustled, out-shouted, and out-organized them as the Aug. 2 default deadline neared. In the end, President Obama chose between allowing the country to go into default and signing onto a deal with deep cuts to domestic spending but no tax increases, despite liberal insistence that more revenues were needed.
“It was the Tea Party and the radical right, the right of the right, that hijacked the Republican Party,” said Rep. John Lewis, a veteran of the civil-rights movement. “They wanted to destroy this president. They made a decision to make him a one-termer, and that’s what it was all about.”
Lewis joined two thirds of the black caucus in voting against the budget deal, warning that the trigger mechanism in the bill will gut Medicare and Medicaid if the evenly divided supercommittee deadlocks and automatic spending cuts kick in.
Rep. Cedric Richmond, one of a handful of freshman Democrats elected in 2010, said he voted for the deal to avoid a national default. “I didn’t want to vote for it, but I didn’t want to take castor oil when I was sick either,” he said.
In an interview with The Daily Beast, Richmond called the House GOP and Tea Party members in particular “sinful” for holding the American economy over a barrel to get the spending cuts they wanted.
“They won because they are organized, they are monolithic, and they are willing, I think, to obstruct the success of the country to win the next election,” he said. “That is what I find to be sinful, with so many people unemployed.”
Although Richmond, Waters, and Rep. Al Green said they want to see Obama reelected, it was impossible not to feel the distance between the legislators, who spent the day among thousands of mostly African-American men and women looking for jobs, and the first black president, who has done little publicly to embrace that role and has failed, so far, to lift their community out of pervasive unemployment and poverty.
That job, the congressmen told the town-hall meeting, would remain theirs alone for now.
“During another period in history, we didn’t wait for the president to act, or wait for members of Congress to act,” Lewis reminded the crowd. “We didn’t have a website. We never heard of the Internet. We didn’t have Facebook. We didn’t have an iPad, we didn’t even have a damn fax machine. But we used what we had and you’ve got to use what you have.”
One by one, caucus members told the audience that they essentially need to start a Tea Party movement of their own. As veterans of marches, sits-in, and jail cells during civil-rights protests a half century ago, they know that in Washington, the people who demand attention usually get it, and in 2011, that wasn’t the black community.
“Our problem is we’re too quiet, too darn quiet,” Lewis said. “We have to find a way to get in the way.”
Waters picked up on the theme: “Do not be afraid to speak up! It is honorable to step up to the plate. It is honorable to do what needs to be done.”
For their part, the members allowed that they might have been able to do more to stand out in the budget debate earlier this year. But their days of silence, they said, are over.
Rev. Albert E. Love, who attended the town hall meeting, sees the same frustration expressed by the visiting lawmakers across the black community.
“That’s sort of a microcosm throughout the country,” Love said. “People are scared. People are frustrated. People don’t know what to do.”