Highlights From Congressional Black Caucus Legislative Conference

African-American Congress members gathered last week to tackle new policies concerning economic inequality, voting rights and criminal justice.

By Brentin Mock Sep 23, 2013

Last week, the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, Inc. held their 43rd Annual Legislative Conference in Washington, D.C., where African-American representatives in Congress interface with their constitutents and other district stakeholders about policies that best serve black communities. It’s an event that in recent years have been draped in scandal, as when newspapers reported questionable spending on the affair and alleged steering of awards and scholarships to family members of the Caucus. Other years brought shock, like when Obama told them to "stop complaining." 

Obama spoke again at this year’s conference, as the keynote for their Phoenix Awards banquet, this time with tough words for Republican members of Congress who’ve been acting as dumbbells, weighing down progress on budget negotiations to keep the federal government from running out of money. He also chided them for attempting to defund food assistance benefits and Obamacare.  But he said despite the attacks that he wasn’t tired.

"I don’t get tired is because I’ve seen people who are in this audience and what you’ve done, the odds that you’ve overcome," said Obama at the reception, which also honored Rep. Elijah Cummings and the historic "spirit of 1963" struggles for civil rights. 

Discussions around Congress restoring voting rights, reforming criminal justice, addressing black unemployment and climate change also dominated the conference. Below are highlights:

Economy — Just as the CBC conference kicked off, the House voted to cut $40 billion from SNAP food stamp benefits, which framed many of the discussions held about why African-Americans have been catching such a tough break in the current broken economy. A roundtable discussion led by Louisiana’s Rep. Cedric Richmond and Sen. Mary Landrieu and Texas’ Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee explored ways that Congress should address the growing racial wealth gap, and discussed a Senate report on economic inequities. Sen. Landrieu said that income and education gaps between whites and people of color have closed, but the "data tells us that this progress has not translated into the closing of the wealth gap."

(Rep. John Conyers addresses voting rights during CBC conference.)

Voting rights — During a workshop hosted by Rep. John Conyers of Michigan on restoring the Voting Rights Act to full power,  Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer made a surprise visit to assure that that was exactly what was happening in Congress. Shortly after, at another voting rights discussion Attorney General Eric Holder reinforced his commitment to protecting people of color against elections discrimination and said not to view the Supreme Court’s weakening of the Voting Rights Act "as a defeat for the cause of voting rights, but as an opportunity to ensure that modern protections are adequate to the challenges of the 21st century."

Climate change —  Another surprise visit happened when new EPA chief Gina McCarthy crashed a panel discussion on environmental justice led by Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina. She had just announced the same morning at the National Press Club the EPA’s new regulations on carbon emissions from new power plants, a ground-breaking policy targeted at curbing climate change. Before CBC members, she said that under her reign EPA’s priority would be communities of color and those most vulnerable to environmental dangers like climate change. Said McCarthy, "I want every grant program we have to be first screened for who is going to benefit. I want funds from every portion of our agency going towards addressing those most in need."

Criminal Justice reform — At a forum on criminal justice issues led by Rep. Maxine Waters of California, Attorney General Eric Holder continued his streak of letting the nation know that he was implementing new sentencing policies that would remedy the mass incarceration crisis that has been devastating communities of color. CBC members and their constituents applauded the announcement Holder made about new guidelines for ending mandatory minimum sentencing for non-violent offenders that would be applied not just to new cases moving forward, but also retroactively to pending cases where a defendant has been charged but is still awaiting adjudication.