While the Republicans control both chambers of the U.S. Congress, the Congressional Black Caucus has key leaders on committees that will articulate the Democratic point of view.
In the 115th session of Congress convened Jan. 3, there are no Black chairs of committees in either the U.S. House of Representatives or the U.S. Senate. However, there are six Blacks who serve as ranking members or lead Democrats among the 21 standing committees in the House.
U.S. Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.)
U.S. Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) is the ranking member of the Committee on the Judiciary while Bobby Scott (D-Va.) serves as the top Democrat on the Education & The Workforce committee. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) is the head Democrat on Financial Services committee while Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) leads his party on the Homeland Security committee. Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) will again speak on behalf of Democrats on the Committee on Oversight & Government Reform while Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), will lead the loyal opposition on the Science, Space & Technology Committee.
It is in the committees that most of the legislative work gets done. Committees in both chambers consider and vote on bills but in the House, all bills having to do with government funds start in that chamber while all presidential nominations to the executive branch and the courts are the exclusive jurisdiction of the Senate.
Committee chairs in the House are based on seniority or length of service, and are selected by their members’ party organizations. Ranking members are picked for their positions the same way.
For example, during this session of Congress, the Democratic Policy and Steering Committee determines who the ranking members are while the House Republican Steering Committee chooses the chairmen for its committees. The only exception to this procedure is the chairman of the Rules Committee, which is selected by the speaker of the House.
In the Senate, committee chairs and ranking members are selected by party caucuses.
John Bullock, a political scientist based in Baltimore, told the AFRO that serving as a ranking member of a committee is an important responsibility. “You may not be the leader of the committee but when the balance of power changes, you could become the chairman of that committee,” said Bullock, a member of the Baltimore City Council as a Democrat representing District 9. “As the ranking member, you will have your voice heard on legislation. You may not be able to make any changes though, but you can make that stance.”
However, not all committee chairman-ranking member relationships need to be contentious.
Okey K. Enyia, former Senate staffer and Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Health Policy Fellow, told the AFRO that a ranking members’ effectiveness depends on the relationship that the person has with the chairman of the committee. “Each committee operates differently,” he said. “If the chairman and the ranking member have a good relationship, it tends to set a precedent that will filter down to the members of the committee and the committee staff.”
Contrary to popular opinion, Enyia said, many lawmakers of different parties get along well professionally. “I worked on the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions on the Democratic staff under Sen. Patty Murray,” he said. “Sen. Murray and the chairman of the committee, Sen. Lamar Alexander, got along quite well. As a result, I had the chance to help write the 21st Century Cures Act that President Obama signed into law on Dec. 16, 2016.”
The 21st Century Cures Act aims to find a cure for diseases such as Alzheimer’s, cancer, and opioid addiction.