Musical Chairs on the Hill: Regaining Control of the House Could Have Larger Political Consequence for African Americans Than If Clinton Stays in the White House

Article excerpt

A REPUBLICAN PRESIDENT, A REPUBLICAN-controlled House and a conservative-leaning Supreme Court is what potentially awaits the American public as the reelection races steamroll toward November.

And while much of the public is keeping a watchful eye on the slugfest between Bill Clinton and Bob Dole, perhaps an even more crucial battle is shaping up on Capitol Hill as the Democrats regain majority control then African American legislators are set to head critical committee seats.

All 435 House seats are up for vote and one-third, or 34 seats, are up for election in the Senate. But since many incumbents are running against little or no opposition, a great turnaround isn't expected. Then again, the Democrats don't need a great shift to turn the tide back in their favor--only a slight nudge. The Republicans currently hold 235 seats to the Democrats' 198, so the Democrats need only 20 seats to regain the majority. And as Newt Gingrich, along with his "Contract with America," continues to take a beating in the polls, the plausibility of snatching 20 seats from the Republicans seems a lot more possible now than it did only a few months ago. And the Democrats need only three seats to regain control of the Senate.

So in what analysts are calling a potentially watershed year for African American legislators, it's clear that much more is at stake than who wins the presidency in November.

WAYS AND MEANS Charles Rangel (D-New York)

After 26 years on the Hill, Rangel now finds himself within reach of one of the most sought after gavels on Capitol Hill: head of Ways and Means. The committee is responsible for overseeing the apportioning of government revenues and has jurisdiction over the country's Social Security and Medicare systems, welfare, taxes, trade and tariffs. It also provides the tax incentives created to lure businesses to Empowerment Zones.

"It's one of the most powerful committees in the house," says Ronald Walters, professor of Afro-American studies, government and politics at the University of Maryland. "Not only would he have jurisdiction over much of legislation that comes through the Hill, but he would also have the ability to help to scuttle legislation that would hurt African Americans. He could be the watchman at the door."

This committee has tremendous influence on where and how tax dollars are spent. It's of particular importance to small business owners because Ways and Means has jurisdiction over a host of tax code measures, ranging from business expenses to employee benefits to the varying tax rates small business owners pay.

THE JUDICIARY John Conyers Jr. (D-Michigan)

John Conyers is in line to head the Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over constitutional, consumer protection and civil rights issues. As chairman, Conyers could be vital to countering the flood of Supreme Court rulings that have proved detrimental to African Americans over the past decade. "When you look at rulings that have come down affecting affirmative action or minority redistricting or any civil rights issue that's been unfavorable, it's possible that Conyers can stem that tide," says Walters.

David Bositis, a research associate at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, believes that Conyers as Judiciary head would have wide-ranging jurisdiction over many issues affecting the black community. "Anything from gun control legislation to illegal immigration would come under his scrutiny. And all constitutional issues, including the sentencing guidelines concerning crack and cocaine to crackdowns on the filing of lawsuits, would be in his domain. …