Politics Mondays: Congressman Elijah Cummings's E-Letter To Deborah Simmons and The Washington Times Re: "Partying with no Purpose"

As Chairman of the 39-member Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), I understand that criticism from the press is part of serving in the Congress.

More difficult to understand, however, is how a major newspaper like the Washington Times could be reduced to printing the inaccurate and misleading assertions that dominated its September 19th op-ed, "Partying With No Purpose," under Deborah Simmons' byline.

The Congressional Black Caucus Foundation's 33rd Annual Legislative Conference (ALC) being held in Washington this week will serve some very important purposes, and I am confident that the non-profit Foundation's very able Chairman, Congressman William J. Jefferson of Louisiana, would agree.

Fair is fair, however. Let's allow the Times' readers to make up their own minds.

Yes, as noted in the Times editorial, there will be receptions, a fashion show and an awards dinner during the ALC. Although the Times chose to label these events a "shakedown," I believe that the thousands of deserving young people who have benefited from the $6 million in scholarship assistance raised by these events over the years would disagree. They might well call the ALC's fund-raising efforts a "hand up".

The Times also failed to inform its readers that more than 50 citizen-legislator forums will be held during the ALC this week. Thousands of Americans will come together in Washington to examine and debate what the federal government is (and should be) doing to create more jobs, support small businesses, improve our schools, expand access to high quality healthcare, protect our lives and preserve our freedom.

Are these issue forums, the policy "brain trusts," and the national "town hall" that will cap off the conference political? No, unless one uses the word, "political," in the sense that the late Senator Paul Wellstone used it when he called upon those of us who serve in Washington to return to what he termed the "politics of the center."

During the ALC, thousands of Americans will learn from - and TEACH - their elected Representatives about solutions to the public policy issues that are central to our lives. This, in my view, is a very important purpose.

So, to the Times and those reading these words, I ask: isn't this how our representative democracy is supposed to work? How could a government that is truly "of, by and for the people" possibly work otherwise?

I submit that politicians communicating with the people who elected them is at the heart of the American government system.

The fact that the Members of the CBC are currently all Democrats seems to be at the crux of the Times op-ed's complaint.

The example of former CBC member, Congressman Gary Franks, illustrates that the CBC is not immune to Republican influence. I am not angered, however, by the inference that the Times prefers Republicans over Democrats.

I must respectfully suggest, however, that editorial criticisms are far more convincing if they are grounded in fact.

For example, contrary to the Times assertion, almost all of the Members of the CBC were in the Capitol voting against the Republican "voucher" bill, H.R. 2765, on Tuesday evening, September 9th - NOT attending the Congressional Black Caucus Institute's Democratic Presidential Debate in Baltimore. The Times and its readers can check the recorded roll call vote (number 491) on the House web site - but allow me to tell you "the rest of the story."

The CBC Institute and Fox News Channel announced in early August that we were going to hold a presidential debate on the evening of September 9th. We knew that the public interest would be high, as the television ratings ultimately confirmed.

Several days before the debate, however, and knowing that the vote on the D.C. voucher experiment would be a very close one, the House Republicans scheduled the voucher vote for the same night. As the Majority Party, Republicans set the agenda and schedule the votes.

I spent several hours urging members of the CBC to stay in Washington (they all did, with the exception of myself), and I called House Majority Leader Tom Delay seeking the courtesy of a vote postponement. He declined.

We, Democrats, have come to expect this lack of cooperation from the Republican leadership in Washington.

The Members of the Congressional Black Caucus believe that there is a better way for this nation to be governed - an approach that stresses an informed and engaged citizenry as well as a more civil, more cooperative discourse on Capitol Hill.

And on Election Day next year, the American people will decide if we are right.

Congressman Elijah E. Cummings represents Maryland's Seventh Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives. He is Chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus.


Here is the text of the original op-ed that Congressman Elijah Cummings is responding to:


Partying with no purpose
By Deborah Simmons

The Congressional Black Caucus and their spouses will be in downtown Washington next week. It will be time for what they call their Annual Legislative Conference. Like most professional conventions, there are forums and shakedowns, and lots of wining and dining. The caucus also host a fantabulous show of fashions, clothing the average working woman cannot afford (but at least the fashion show is a college-scholarship fund-raiser). As for style vs. substance, the former is a sure thing, while the latter means the caucus will be preaching to the choir.

Using the politics of its chairman and membership as indicators, the CBC's 33rd Legislative Conference will be predictably divisive, with plenty of Bush bashing. Applause meters will not be necessary at this gathering of flashy, smiling Dems - Al, Jesse and Carol will surely be there. And no one in the crowd would be surprised if Bill - Clinton, that is - showed his face in the place.

Do not expect the sitting president to make an appearance, though. CBC Chairman Elijah Cummings had the gall this summer to flat out reject an invitation from President Bush for a meeting at the White House. The president extended the invitation after returning from Africa. Mr. Cummings, Maryland Democrat, told the president thanks but no thanks. Why? "Mr. President, I need not remind you that the CBC's requests for meetings with you have gone unanswered for more than two-and-one-half years. As a result, you and your administration have had less opportunity to receive the expertise, wisdom and insights of our 39 members," Mr. Cummings wrote in his July 16 letter, which listed such issues as Iraq, unemployment and "our bilateral relationships with African nations."

Indeed. The president need not remind Mr. Cummings that he and his administration hardly lack the "expertise, wisdom and insights" of the caucus' 39 members. To the contrary, the most senior and vocal members - whose entire membership is Democratic - always wear their partisanship with winks and smiles. When Bill Clinton sought congressional support to battle Saddam Hussein in 1998, for example, the majority of the CBC said, "Go ahead, Bill, with our blessings." When George W. Bush sought the same, however, the winks and smiles turned into sneers and jeers.

The caucus' sponsorship of last week's Democratic presidential debate in Baltimore is another example. Mr. Cummings and the other caucus members knew that a crucial vote on a school-voucher proposal was scheduled for the same evening as the debate. What did they do? Did they forsake hanging out with the choir in Baltimore to tend to America's business on Capitol Hill? Of course not. They listened to the hallelujah chorus of Democratic candidates and then did their own GOP-bashing the following day, accusing the Republican-led House of playing partisan politics. (Methinks they are jealous, especially since they didn't criticize attendees Dick Gephardt and Dennis Kucinich.)

While the black caucus parties without a purpose, Republicans will be honoring the Bush administration's black appointees, including Alphonso Jackson, Rod Paige, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice. The timing of the event is coincidental (wink, wink), and I'm certain some folks will think it's at once discriminatory and patronizing. Perhaps. Consider this, however.

Neither the exclusive Democratic club known as the Congressional Black Caucus nor any of its 39 members has extended an invitation to President Bush. "We've invited the president to meet with us on more than a half-dozen occasions, but he has declined or he has ignored us," CBC spokesman Doug Thornell said the other day.

Hmm. Let's recap. The Congressional Black Caucus holds a party every year called a legislative weekend. Each year, those lawmakers chat, wine and dine with each other and other powerbrokers. Mr. Cummings, who is chairman of this group, is a racial and political minority on Capitol Hill. He is planning this year's party. Mr. Bush, titular head of the party in power, invites Mr. Cummings to sit and chat in the Great House. Mr. Cummings declines. Mr. Cummings also declines to invite Mr. Bush to his party.

You've got to give it to the Republicans. They aren't hiding behind a tax-exempt organization, unlike the black Democrats, who shield their partisan partying behind the tax-exempt status of the CBC Foundation Inc. and call their party a legislative conference. Mr. Cummings and the CBC should be ashamed.

Mr. Bush need not worry. He won't miss anything of substance.

Monday, September 29, 2003