For members of the Congressional Black Caucus, these are tough days.
The Supreme Court upended two major civil rights laws in recent years, striking down key provisions of the Voting Rights Act and upholding Michigan’s ban on affirmative action.
The CBC’s agenda is gaining little traction on Capitol Hill, where Republican leaders in the House have shown little interest in legislation that would restore provisions of the landmark civil rights law or protect affirmative action.
It’s enough to leave CBC members downbeat about the court’s role in civil rights work – and ready to draft their next steps.
“When I was growing up, our only hope governmentally was the federal courts and the Supreme Court,” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) “It is clear now that we can no longer depend on the courts.”
For now, CBC members are organizing their supporters.
CBC Chairwoman Marcia Fudge, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and members of the caucus met last week with 13 civil rights leaders — including representatives of the NAACP and the ACLU — to discuss a path forward for voting rights legislation.
“I feel even more responsibility,” said Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wis.). “It’s even more important to me that we educate our community, not just African-Americans, about preserving the absolute right to vote since the Supreme Court has ruled.”
Fudge also gathered members to discuss the Supreme Court’s decision in late April upholding Michigan’s ban on affirmative action in public universities.
The Republican-controlled House is unlikely to move on legislation authored by Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) and co-sponsor Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) that would authorize the dismantled provisions in the Voting Rights Act. The new legislation would ensure any state with voting violations would be subject to federal approval before changing their election laws.
“The Majority Leader wants to make sure we preserve every American’s right to vote,” said Megan Whittemore, a spokesperson for Majority Leader Eric Cantor. “Both sides still have concerns with various aspects of this proposal, so we continue to have conversations about how it can be improved.”
Some CBC members are hopeful that they’ll have more success in the next Congress.
“The CBC is completely positioned to be helpful to the process and correct what the Supreme Court did in respect to the Voting Rights Act,” said Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.).
Bass said the congressional response to the affirmative action is still being “sorted through” but it’s vital Congress acts, citing the enrollment drop among minorities in the California public university system after the state banned affirmative action in 1996.
That leaves members with few options for “the short term,” said Assistant Democratic Leader James Clyburn of South Carolina.
“If you define the short term as being between now and Nov. 4, [there is little we can do] except…stop agonizing and go to organizing,” he said in an interview. “There are a lot of people agonizing over the Supreme Court decisions…and we’re not going to change anything by sitting around and agonizing. We need to go out and change the make-up of this Congress.”