WASHINGTON — A Republican congressman is pushing to abolish all congressional ethnic caucuses, arguing that these hubs of minority political power perpetuate racial divisions in America.
The proposal, made by Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado, drew criticism and ridicule on Capitol Hill. Tancredo launched his effort two days before the New York-based Foundation for Ethnic Understanding opened its Capitol Hill office last week, with the stated goal of building bridges between Jewish members of Congress and the congressional black, Hispanic and Asian-Pacific caucuses.
“It was definitely a coincidence, but it’s certainly ironic,” said the foundation’s president, Rabbi Marc Schneier, who created the group 14 years ago to improve black-Jewish relations.
The foundation is known for its star-studded events and ties to music industry figures, such as its board’s secretary, hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons. In recent years it has attempted to raise its profile in Washington, hosting congressional awards ceremonies co-sponsored by black and Hispanic organizations.
“We have come to Washington to champion the ethnic caucuses in town — no such office has existed before — and the week that we’re opening up this office, Tancredo made his pronouncement,” Schneier said.
Tancredo chairs the House’s Immigration Reform Caucus, which pushes for more restrictive immigration policies. In interviews last week he said that ethnic caucuses send the wrong message to Americans, a message of racial divisiveness rather than inclusiveness. He said he would like to change the regulations in the Members Congressional Handbook to prohibit race-based caucuses. The handbook now says: “Members of Congress may form a congressional member organization in order to pursue common legislative goals.”
In a letter to Rep. Robert Ney, an Ohio Republican who chairs the House Administration Committee, Tancredo wrote: “Congress, the source of a great deal of ‘color-blind’ rhetoric, should never institutionalize the image of racial divisiveness.” He continued: “I find it somewhat hypocritical that this Congress continues to extol the virtues of a color-blind society while officially sanctioning caucuses that are based solely on race. I believe — as I think most Americans do — that the best way to remedy the ills of discrimination is not with policies that encourage us to highlight racial and ethnic differences.”
Ney had no immediate response. Tancredo told reporters that privately some of his colleagues support his idea, but no one has yet come out publicly in support. Members of the House’s ethnic caucuses — the black, Hispanic and Asian-Pacific American caucuses — were appalled, as were many of the House’s Jewish members.
“I think it’s stupid,” Massachusetts Democrat Rep. Barney Frank told the Forward. “It’s an unfortunate example of blaming people who decide to resolve the problem for the problem. We have African Americans and Hispanics, and there are [ethnic and racial] issues in this society. The notion that there are no more ethnic issues in America or race discrimination is nonsense. It’s an example of a failure to understand the moral imperative of diminishing prejudices.”
The Jewish members of Congress — 11 senators and 26 House members — are not organized into any official group. The Jewish members of Congress have never had an official caucus, partly because Jewish legislators did not want to play into antisemitic charges of excessive Jewish political influence.
Jewish members of the House do meet informally from time to time, however, to discuss issues of common interest. Typically, their meetings are devoted to Israel and the Middle East. More than 90% of their meetings revolve around these issues, according to several Jewish lawmakers. The unofficial “dean” of the group is Rep. Henry Waxman, a California Democrat who is the longest-serving Jewish member of the House. The last meeting of the Jewish members was about a month ago, to hear from the temporary secretary general of Israel’s Labor Party, Shimon Peres.
Schneier said that he thinks a Jewish caucus could benefit the Jewish community by politically bridging gaps between Jews and other ethnic minorities in the United States. He said that Jewish members of Congress are now reassessing the merits of forming such a caucus.
But a quick poll of six House members suggested that this idea is not under serious consideration. “I’m not aware of such ideas, and I don’t think there necessarily is a need for it,” said New York Democrat Rep. Jerrold Nadler. Frank of Massachusetts explained: “Things are working well as they are. Jews in America have evolved in a good direction, in that we do not confront as a group the same level of problems that, say, African Americans or Hispanics do.”
Although there is no formal Jewish caucus, two formal Israel-related caucuses have recently evolved in the House. One is the bipartisan U.S./Israel Security Cooperation Congressional Caucus, which has not yet swung into action. The other is a new Israel caucus, which is now being formed by several Jewish and non-Jewish Democrats in Congress in an attempt to counter Republican efforts to woo Jewish voters.
Former New York congressman Bill Paxon started a Republican pro-Israel caucus in 1995 that became dormant after he lost his race for re-election in 1998. It has recently been revived by Reps. Tom Davis of Virginia and Tom Reynolds of New York.