In what may well be the most influential Congressional Black Caucus ever — claiming the gavels of four full committees, 17 subcommittees and a top leadership post — it would seem easy for Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick (D-Mich.) to be overshadowed in her role at the caucus’ helm.
Instead, Kilpatrick has kept the CBC in her control, making collaboration a keystone in what both she, as well as fellow lawmakers in the the 43-member organization — made up of all House Members but for Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) — describe as her leadership style in the first session of the current Congress.
“It really does beat you over the head … many of [the CBC’s members] have much more seniority than I,” Kilpatrick acknowledged, estimating that, now in her sixth term in Congress, she falls somewhere in the middle of the pack when it comes to seniority in the group.
“But it hasn’t been a problem and I think that’s mainly because if it’s your issue and you’re on it and you’re the expert, I let you lead it,” she added. “We learn from each other.”
In an interview in her Rayburn Building office, Kilpatrick explained: “We have a cadre of leaders … who I talk to regularly to confer about things. I don’t try to do it all from here. I like to bring everybody in. … We’ve gotten good participation because of that.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), himself a former CBC chairman, commended Kilpatrick for her emphasis on delegation and use of lawmakers based on their interests.
“She’s done a good job of keeping the caucus together,” Cummings said. “She does a great job of using Members — they play roles they want to play. That means a lot to Members.”
And in turn, it has benefited Kilpatrick’s chairmanship in unexpected ways.
Although the Michigan lawmaker was asked to give up her longtime seat on the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee earlier this year, the CBC continues to have numerous eyes and ears populating the important panel.
“I’m not in that room. And you know, I was really upset at first, but it’s OK, because I don’t have the time to do another thing. So we rely on who is in that room,” she said, referencing Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.), Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C) and “some of our committee chairmen and some of our regional heads. That’s just a small example of it.”
Some of those same Members, notably Clyburn, also give the CBC greater access to the chamber’s overall leadership.
“Every Wednesday at noon, I open up [the weekly CBC meeting] and following me the Whip makes a report. So he reports to us, he reports what goes on in those leadership meetings, what we need to know, how we need to work together,” Kilpatrick said. “I feel very much at ease with those members who are in leadership being in those meetings and then coming back to report to the rest of us.”
But Rep. Kendrick Meek (D-Fla.), who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation — a nonpartisan, nonprofit institute that will host its 37th annual legislative conference beginning Wednesday — said that decentralized style does not diminish the Michigan lawmaker’s influence.
“Anyone that’s a leader of 43 Members of Congress carries a big stick here on Capitol Hill,” Meek said.
Just nine months into her tenure as chair, Kilpatrick already can point to success in pushing the CBC agenda this year.
“I think we’ve been doing, under all circumstances, considerably well. Democrats are in charge for the first time in over a decade … and I think we’ve done a good job,” Kilpatrick said.
Among its victories, the CBC counts legislation increasing the minimum wage, securing additional funds for areas damaged by Hurricanes Rita and Katrina and passing a federal hate crimes bill.
While Kilpatrick highlights the significance of unanimous, or near unanimous, CBC votes on those measures and others, including the farm bill, she insists she has done little arm-twisting to line Members up.
“I think it’s the issues themselves. All of those have been domestic, people issues that have been off the radar screen under Republican leadership, and now that we have Democrats in charge we’re able to put that back on the agenda,” she asserted. “These are bread-and-butter issues, family issues, it has not been hard on those issues.”
Regardless of how easily Members have aligned on those issues, Kilpatrick asserts that voting en bloc has further enhanced the CBC’s position within the Democratic Caucus.
“We’re considered. We’re in the room. We help shape the policy. We have input in actually what comes out in the bills, and whether or not hearings are held on the bill. It definitely helps,” she said.
As the first session of the 110th Congress winds down in its final weeks, Kilpatrick said she expects an extension of children’s health insurance will remain the caucus’s top priority.
Prior to a Friday announcement of a House-Senate compromise bill, expected to reach the House floor as early as today, Kilpatrick criticized rumors that the measure largely would reflect a Senate-passed version, before an announcement that the bill would include dental coverage and mental health care sought by the House.
At that time Kilpatrick said she would support an extension of the bill, set to expire Sept. 30, to allow lawmakers more time to negotiate a package. President Bush already has indicated he will veto the legislation.
“We’re willing to compromise, but to just put a bill on the president’s desk that he may or may not veto, that’s not acceptable to us,” she added. Kilpatrick has not commented publicly on the new agreement, and she was traveling Monday and could not be reached.
In the meantime, Kilpatrick said she foresees a second half of the 110th Congress with a continued focus on other health care issues as well as education.
“We’ve got some unfinished work to do as it relates to energy and housing and jobs,” she added, acknowledging that other issues, such as the second half of a proposed House energy package, may force more difficult discussions within the caucus and make such unified votes more difficult.
“Energy, for example, is really a geographic fight,” Kilpatrick said. “In the Midwest we have a lot of auto manufacturers, so we’re strongly in favor of alternative fuels and energy saving cars, but we believe there’s a way to do that. People on the West Coast — we have members over there as well — they tend to think, let’s do it arbitrarily, let’s make 30 miles per gallon for trucks and cars, period, by a certain date.”
While such issues could present significant challenges when it comes to presenting a united front, Kilpatrick does not believe that lawmakers’ commitments to 2008 Democratic presidential candidates will prompt similar internal strife.
Adding that the CBC does not endorse presidential candidates, Kilpatrick said: “We vote according to the people that we represent 99 percent of the time, so who we represent or who we support for president, I don’t think that will be a problem.”