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African-American Congressmen Pursue Top House Leadership Posts


Tuesday’s US elections signaled the return of Democratic party control of the House of Representatives for the first time since 1994. South Carolina Congressman Jim Clyburn is one of 42 Democratic members of the African-American Congressional Black Caucus, whose political power will increase when the new Congress begins in January. Democrats regained their majority in the House of Representatives on Tuesday by winning 28 seats previously held by Republicans. They are expected to hold a 234-201 majority when the new Congress convenes in January. Clyburn, who is campaigning to be elected Majority Whip, the third ranking House Democrat, says that many other long-time African-American congressmen will assume historic roles as committee chairmen in the new Congress.

“Charlie Rangel (NY) is going to chair the Ways and Means Committee. That’s historic. No African-American has ever chaired that committee before. The Ways and Means Committee – that’s where all the tax laws are written. That’s where Social Security is massaged. That’s where Medicare, all the trade bills, they all go through the Ways and Means Committee. You’ll have John Conyers. For the first time, an African-American will be chairing the Judiciary Committee. That’s big news! Bennie Thompson will be chairing Homeland Security, an African-American from Mississippi….John Conyers, an African-American from Michigan, ” he said.

On international affairs involving African policy, Congressman Clyburn says the new party in power will also be able to make a difference.

“One of the subcommittee chairs will be Don Payne from New Jersey. Don Payne will be dealing with the (International Relations) Subcommittee on Africa, and so I see a heightened role for the Democratic Congress because you’ll have African-Americans there. On our International Committee and our Appropriations Committee, Jesse Jackson, Jr. (IL) and Carolyn Kilpatrick (MI) both serve on the Foreign Affairs Appropriations Committee, and they will have a lot to say about what happens to Africa, and so Darfur and the Sudan will be big. But we’ll have other things in Africa as well,” he said.

Congressman Clyburn currently ranks third among House Democrats in the Minority, holding the position of Chair of the House Democratic Caucus. When the Democrats take over power in January, he hopes his party’s Congressional colleagues will elect him Majority Whip, the third highest ranking position in the entire House of Representatives.

“I see my role as balancing the interests of everybody in the Caucus,” he says, “be they African-Americans or Hispanics or what have you. I think that’s the way to function in a diverse caucus. We’re a little bit different from the Republicans. The Republicans had zero African-Americans, and we have 42. And so the interests and experiences must be taken into account.”

Also hoping to represent some 190 other House Democrats as Whip, Congressman Clyburn says he would like to conduct the legislative business of the Caucus in a way “in which everybody feels that his or her voice has been heard.” He would not be the first African-American Democrat to serve as House Majority Whip. Congressman Bill Gray of Pennsylvania, who chaired the International Relations Subcommittee on African Affairs in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, also served as the Democrats’ House Majority Whip.

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