House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) federal budget proposal, crowded with unrealistic cuts on critical social programs, is like a scene in a bad The Lord of the Rings sequel. Long, overblown and waiting for a third act—and as unbearably outdated in its outlook on poverty as Gandalf appears in his gray beard. Yet, judging from the media noise, you might come to the conclusion that it’s the only budget proposal there is.
It's not. In fact, one of the smarter budgets to hit the Hill has gotten nary a mention. It’s the Congressional Black Caucus’ Alternative FY2015 Budget Plan (pdf).
The CBC’s practical stab at budget mathematics is an impressively disciplined annual exercise you wouldn’t know about—even if you live and work in Washington, D.C. Budgets get built, tossed, blocked and reviewed through dozens of legislative loops. Most voters, even those who frequently glean the headlines, seldom bother themselves with federal budget minutiae. But worse yet, the budget conversation each year seems funneled through an extremely one-dimensional perspective absent voices of color.
Personally, I like my budget policy conversations mixed up a bit. Pour some milk into that cereal. Throw some shrimp and sauce at those grits. What are the alternatives? I want to hear about something other than numbers baked by a guy who walked into a black Indianapolis church recently and told the congregation: “Usually when I get up this early, I get up to kill something.”
The CBC budget, unfortunately, is one of those passed over and pitifully neglected pastimes of Capitol Hill culture. It’s a shame because it’s actually one of the better documents to circulate Capitol Hill every year—and has been so consistently since Ronald Reagan was president. You don’t have to agree with everything in it, but it definitely injects an essential black voice into the high stakes budget debate.
That voice rightfully presses the case for a sensible $500 billion combined job creation, infrastructure and education improvement package, along with $2 trillion in revenue, nearly $2 trillion in deficit reduction and $400 billion in poverty reduction. Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-Pa.) has proposed a very workable Wall Street “transaction tax”—a simple 0.25 percent tax on every financial speculation that raises nearly $400 billion over 10 years. But Congress backed Ryan’s 10 percentage point drop in the corporate tax rate that somehow maintains the defense budget as is while proposing cuts to food stamps, health care and college funding.
The problem here is that you’ll only know about the CBC budget if you’ve worked on the Hill … or, really, have the even lower statistical chance of having worked for a CBC member. If we’re engaged in games of probability, chances are slim that you barely caught wind of it in a white Democrat’s office—especially this year and last when 76 House Democrats voted against it. And, if you worked in a Republican’s office, your boss more than likely shredded it without even knowing what it was or caring.
Try Googling for CBC budget news mentions and the best you get is a reference in an obscure German market news publication. Mainstream outlets aren’t impressed despite the sizeable 43-member caucus. They are, on the other hand, enamored with the highly overrated and embellished skills of a Republican emcee who brands himself as a policy Sherpa. Political-industry publications that make Hill reporting their business (e.g., Politico, The Hill, Roll Call and National Journal) rarely give the CBC budget shoutouts even as they sit in on their conference calls or fill up space at their pressers.
Let a black member get slapped with an ethics probe, say something off-the-cuff on race or be the obligatory go-to person for all things racially charged and you’ll get streams of content to hit the trend cycle.
But let a group of organized black politicians actually count and crunch budget numbers—that’s apparently too much for Washington and the world to handle. Heads explode. “They do budgets?” I’ve actually overheard a few incredulous and rudely inferring white Beltway insiders ask when told: Yes, the CBC has dropped budgets for a pretty long time. Longer than some other caucuses and congressional leadership groups, despite the fact that the fiscal oracle known as the Congressional Budget Office isn’t really allowed to score it.
Even as the CBC budget gained 11 votes more (for a total of 116) this year than it did last, its place in history remains a thankless unknown. Yet, CBC members insist on going through a Groundhog Day grinder of blatant disrespect from a combined wall of Republicans and fellow Democrats who ultimately doubt the budget calculating abilities of their African-American colleagues.
After all that, the CBC budget is still one of the last real and intellectually solid congressional sounding boards for the underserved, and yet it can’t find a session of Congress that dares to pass it. The CBC may not get everything right—who does in Washington these days? They should, however, at least get credit for going in the right direction with this particular effort. Maybe next year’s proposal will get the front page we’ve been waiting for. Paul Ryan’s did.
Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and regular contributor to The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune and chief political correspondent for Uptown magazine. Follow him on Twitter.
Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and a contributing editor at The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, a frequent contributor to The Hill, the weekly Washington insider for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia and host of The Ellison Report, a weekly public-affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.