It wasn't until the Democrats took over Congress last fall that the race factor in Washington really got interesting. After all, if you believed the Republican campaign rhetoric, the most powerful committees in the House were going to be headed by African Americans who were either radical or incompetent.
Well, the evidence so far is that they are neither. Charlie Rangel, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, and his ranking member, Jim McCrery, a conservative Louisiana Republican, have worked out a small package of tax cuts to add to the minimum-wage bill. Rangel has said he has no interest in raising taxes on the middle class. He has cited as his top priority fixing the alternative minimum tax, which he argues unfairly burdens middle-class families. He has also led breakthrough negotiations on free trade with Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Trade Representative Susan Schwab that put in place labor and environmental protections as part of deals the Administration dearly wants to get through Congress. "Students of Congress knew that was exactly how [Rangel] would operate," said the Brookings Institution's Tom Mann. "He's a pro."
As for John Conyers, now head of the Judiciary Committee, he still speaks dreamily about impeaching President George W. Bush but takes no action. He has studiously avoided putting anything radioactive on the agenda, including gun control, abortion and same-sex marriage. One of his subcommittees has issued subpoenas, but those are on the firings of the U.S. Attorneys by Bush's Justice Department and that is exactly the kind of congressional oversight that people voted for in the past election.
When it comes to incompetence, the campaign charge came up most specifically against Silvestre Reyes, the Hispanic from El Paso, Texas, who heads the Intelligence Committee. The Washington Post wrote that the "whispers" about Reyes center on his "intellectual firepower." He is a former border-patrol agent with a low-key manner and a hearing problem that often leads people to think he doesn't understand them. Not only does he lack the starched-shirt intimidating attitude, but his education is definitely not Ivy League: a two-year degree from El Paso Community College. The initial questions about Reyes came down to how a man with a parochial education was going to deal with Iraq, Iran and terrorism.
Questions about the intellect of black and brown Americans sadly extend from lagging SAT scores to the halls of Congress. And the question making the rounds among fellow Democrats was whether Reyes was up for the fight to protect civil liberties against government agents listening to phone calls. He did not help himself with a botched interview in which he failed to get his Shi'ites and Sunnis in the right terrorism groups. That slipup got lots of attention, including a lengthy article in the Washington Post. Reyes says the interview was a "screwup." His lack of guile and his ability to admit a mistake are evidence of good character. But his gaffe played into a racist assumption that stretches at least as far back as the 1970s, when California Congressman Ron Dellums, a black from Oakland with a long history of civil rights and union activism, won a seat on the House Armed Services Committee. There he was regularly ignored and treated as a token, even by some fellow Democrats.
But time passed, and Dellums became a respected--if left-leaning--voice on the committee. Dick Cheney, who as Defense Secretary worked with Dellums, called him a "straight shooter" who was worthy of trust. The same issues popped up when Dellums later won a seat on the Intelligence Committee. That time it was right-wing warrior Newt Gingrich, who was in Congress at the same time, pointing out that Dellums had been handling secrets for years on the Armed Services Committee.
Reyes seems to be following the Dellums trajectory. "Chairman Reyes is a straight shooter and a good man," a senior intelligence official told me, using nearly the same language to defend Reyes that Cheney had used years earlier to defend Dellums. Reyes has succeeded in pressing the Bush Administration to work through the courts to get permission to eavesdrop on e-mails and phone calls between Americans and people overseas. He also got the Administration to turn over records of the National Security Agency's eavesdropping plan. He has traveled to Iraq and Africa to look into the terrorism threat and hired a racially diverse staff that includes people with Arabic-language skills and a knowledge of Muslim culture. As one of his Republican committee members puts it, "He gets it." In the age of Barack Obama's inspiring bid to become the first black candidate to win a major party's presidential nomination, it's time to give Reyes, Rangel, Conyers and the other minority chairs in the Democratic majority Congress the proper respect that Dellums spent two decades to earn. *
Williams is senior correspondent for NPR, an analyst for Fox News and author of Enough