Minority lawmakers gain unprecedented clout amid pandemic

Minority caucuses in the House are gaining unprecedented political clout, spurred by unity between black, Hispanic, and Asian and Pacific American lawmakers.

Known collectively as the Tri-Caucus, the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) and Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus (CAPAC) encompass 131 House Democrats, or 56 percent of the most diverse House Democratic Caucus ever.

But the Tri-Caucus was not always effective in yielding its full voting power to move legislation or leadership battles.

That dynamic began changing as minority legislators united around opposition to President Trump’s policies and rhetoric on minorities and immigrants, but the move toward unity accelerated dramatically as COVID-19 disproportionately affected communities of color, leading to increased coordination among the minority lawmakers.

“We have much in common, and we started off the beginning of last year agreeing to work together much closer and have it be beyond the three chairs, because that’s what it has been historically,” said CBC Chairwoman Karen Bass (D-Calif.).

Bass said the Tri-Caucus was planning to focus on the upcoming once-in-a-decade census and the 2020 elections but was forced to pivot as communities of color became the hardest hit by the coronavirus.

Most recently, the Tri-Caucus pushed for economic relief for foreign taxpayers without Social Security numbers in the last House coronavirus package, including for many undocumented immigrants and their U.S. citizen spouses and children.

The measure was targeted by House Republicans, who attempted a last-minute legislative maneuver Friday to divide Democrats on the issue, claiming it would unfairly grant benefits to undocumented immigrants.

Although 13 House Democrats voted for the Republican measure, the maneuver was shot down and the House passed the relief bill, including the provision to include undocumented taxpayers in economic relief.

“The pandemic has affected our communities of color so drastically that it’s caused us to come together to deal with it,” said CAPAC Chairwoman Judy Chu (D-Calif.), who leads the Tri-Caucus along with Bass and CHC Chairman Joaquin Castro (D-Texas).

Chu said that health care issues are a natural causeway for the Tri-Caucus, which has from the onset focused on health disparities faced by people of color.

For instance, the Tri-Caucus has worked on exposing and preventing long-standing health care disparities among communities of color, which have now contributed to much higher coronavirus death rates among black, Hispanic and Pacific Islander Americans.

Immigration has also been at the top of the agenda for the group, but its component caucuses have conflicting priorities at times.

For instance, a top CHC priority is the regularization of 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country, while the CBC’s immigration focus is on the diversity visa program, also known as the visa lottery, and many of the CAPAC’s core constituents are concerned about backlogs in the legal immigration system.

The Trump administration in 2018 tried to exploit those differences, offering in immigration reform negotiations different combinations of immigration policies that could have benefited some minority groups over others.

The strategy, which Democrats viewed as an attempt to drive a wedge between its constituent groups, backfired.

“We, the Tri-Caucus, have stood side by side on a pathway to citizenship, on fixing our legal immigration system and on the diversity visas — we will not be pitted against one another,” said Chu.

But historically, the caucuses were often at odds with each other, squabbling over committee assignments and legislative positions.

“In the past there was a rivalry between the black and Hispanic caucuses, and I recall that Speaker [Tom] Foley at the time tried to deemphasize the rivalry by appointing two deputy whips, one from the Hispanic Caucus and one from the Black Caucus,” said former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D), who during his 14-year House career chaired the CHC from 1983 to 1985.

Richardson said as the caucuses have grown, their impact on policy has expanded and their political clout has moved beyond the confines of the House of Representatives.

“In my day the focus of the caucus was helping members get good committee assignments; secondly, we established an institute; and third, we were trying constantly to bring the Republican caucus members as members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus,” said Richardson.

“[Now] it’s not just a great bully pulpit, but it also helps shape important legislation,” he added.

The caucuses have not only grown in size, but they’ve also expanded their campaign footprint, with the CBC and CHC opening their own PACs, designed to expand the caucuses and to support allies in their election and reelection efforts.

And the unity afforded by the Tri-Caucus has allowed the three constituent caucuses to mold their policy provisions and coordinate tactics.

In 2001, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) was chairwoman of the CBC and a member of the CAPAC — her district hosted nearly as many Asian Americans as African Americans — when she got the idea to start the Tri-Caucus.

“In 2001 when I was chair of the CBC, I started the Tri-Caucus because I thought it would give us more clout in issues common to the three groups,” said Johnson.

“Our issues have always been pretty much the same, and we go into different phases of experiences with nearly the same statistics,” she added.

Still, some have criticized caucuses centered on shared ethnicity or national origin as expressions of identity politics, as Americans of all origins face similar issues.

Richardson said the caucuses should be gauged by the representation they afford their constituents.

“I think that’s healthy in my view. Nationally I’d like to see less identity politics, but within the House it’s a reality, it’s good,” he said.

And Castro, the CHC chair, said the Tri-Caucus, which now often collaborates with Reps. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) and Sharice Davids (D-Kan.), the two Native American women in Congress, also serves to protect the interests of communities that have historically come under attack in the United States.

Castro pointed to the historical experience of black Americans, the nativist attack against Hispanics in El Paso in  August and xenophobic attacks against Asian Americans during the coronavirus pandemic as examples.

“What some people misunderstand is that these communities of color have the same concerns as other communities, but they’ve also been especially vulnerable to attack over the years,” said Castro.

Tags Coronavirus Deb Haaland Donald Trump Eddie Bernice Johnson Joaquin Castro Judy Chu Karen Bass Sharice Davids

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