In Meeting With Paul Ryan, the CBC Was Killing It Softly

A highly anticipated session between black lawmakers and the conservative Republican was not the fiery confrontation some expected.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio)
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) Twitter/Frank Thorpe

If conservative bean counter and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) was expecting a packed roomful of angry black members of Congress, he got a rude awakening.

They were actually mad nice about it.

A nervously anticipated meeting this week between the Congressional Black Caucus and the stumbling Badger State congressman looking to reinvent himself had been advertised as an Ultimate Fighting Championship Muay Thai cage match. That expectation certainly seemed warranted. Ryan, the 2012 Republican vice presidential nominee and P90X fanatic, had paved a long road of cultural gaffes and miscues near worthy of a customized racial sensitivity boot camp. If he wasn’t faking an inarticulate throat bump on exactly what he meant by “inner city” during a pander-filled appearance on a conservative talk show, he was actively dynamiting crucial social programs on spreadsheets to pay for corporate tax breaks.

“We tried to create a good environment for him,” explained Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wis.), the CBC Budget Task Force chair and a Ryan state-mate. “We actually fed him.”

In essence, the CBC flipped the scripts on Ryan for this session, killing him and his budget philosophy nicely with a classic soul food spread and unbearably pleasant African-American hospitality. The strategy, on surface, appeared well played: completely obliterate any preconceived notions he or the ultraconservative anti-black activists he rolls with have about black folks in general. Use honey rather than vinegar. Instead of doing what he expected, do the exact opposite.

That meant a lot of sore tongues in the aftermath as CBC members bit back from hurling diatribes at Ryan. But they did manage to get their talking points across while drawing commitments from the Budget chair. 

“Of course, we let him know that what you expected was a non sequitur, cutting $791 billion out of nondiscretionary, nondefense appropriations to ‘help the poor,’” Moore snickered.  “No one was naive about anything coming out of this.”

What did come out of it is unclear and, perhaps, was a purgatory between needed policy aims and political imperatives. The CBC didn’t necessarily get anything out of it other than a commitment from Ryan that he’d be meeting with them more regularly, which might be a great first step for stuffy lawmakers who are used to all-day meeting circuits. Whether it moves the goalpost any on how the budget truly impacts their constituents remains to be seen. While it’s nice to have the House Budget chair mustering up enough patience to listen to his black rivals’ gripes, it’s not like he skipped out eager to report back a breakthrough on budget talks to GOP leaders.

Ryan can easily run the clock on this. Say on one hand that you want to examine the CBC’s creative 10-20-30 plan—whereby 10 percent of federal dollars invests in communities where 20 percent or more of the population has lived below the poverty line for the last 30 years—but, on the other hand, want to clown the caucus privately and publicly as misguided minions doing the bidding of its Democrat Party overseers. It’s the kind of ideological silliness Ryan channeled through what was described as a pregame-show Budget Committee hearing before the sit-down. That episode highlighted the likes of Center for Neighborhood Enterprise founder Bob Woodson, a crafty black conservative who styles himself as a less-government entrepreneur while half of CNE’s annual budget appears to come from a $2.3 million Department of Justice grant. 

But, to its credit, the CBC has changed the calculus slightly by putting its budget out front. That’s a solid feat in the kind of political climate where partisans choose insults over compromise. Sure, it took a full spread buffet to get his attention, but it’s better than out of sight, out of mind. The issue is whether or not this is truly meat and potatoes or just election year salad dressing.