WASHINGTON — Washington.--The American electorate changed the course of American politics last week. Buried among the many stories of defeated incumbents will be the inglorious end of an era for black members of Congress, who will now become the minority's minority.
While most black members were easily re-elected, the collective clout of the Congressional Black Caucus was foreclosed the moment Republicans achieved majority status in the House.
Reaching a record-high 40 members in 1992, the Black Caucus boasted a political status far superior to its numbers. Frequently providing the margin of victory or defeat for important legislation, the caucus enjoyed some of its finest hours during the first two years of the Clinton administration: It played a leadership role in ''restoring democracy'' to Haiti and in passing an omnibus crime bill and had a large role in negotiations on the administration's ill-fated health-care reform plan.
Unfaltering support for Bill Clinton provided unencumbered access to the White House, which translated into unprecedented legislative and political clout. The participation or imprimatur of the caucus was essential for many successful coalitions. Many African-American members had become deserving beneficiaries of the congressional seniority system -- a system decried by new members in the 1970s as racist and unfair. But, as conventional wisdom has it, the longer you stay in Congress, the more you like the seniority system.
By 1994, Black Caucus members held the chairs of three standing committees and 16 subcommittees in the House. In January, these coveted positions, with their perks and additional staff, will vanish as Republicans take seats held by Democrats since 1954. Gone will be the black chairmanship of the Armed Services, Government Operations and the Post Office and Civil Service committees, along with key subcommittee chairmanships in appropriations, small business, education and labor, among others. The District of Columbia Committee, traditionally headed by a black member, is likely to go to a conservative white Californian -- Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of Huntington Beach.
In the 104th Congress, black Democrats will not only lose their leadership positions, but also stand to lose most of the oddly configured Southern districts, the result of so-called racial gerrymandering. New members from those districts could be forced to run in districts where the electorate is not majority African-American. There could be as much as 25 percent shrinkage in the ranks of the Black Caucus.
On a larger level, one of the more significant consequences of losing power in Congress is that the Black Caucus, as an entity, could become marginalized. Worse still, it could become relegated for some time to come to the ignominious role of the gnat on the elephant's hide. As the self-described ''conscience of Congress,'' the caucus was able to exercise most of its leverage on Democratic congressional leaders who were predisposed, or at least inclined, to assist black leaders in
delivering to their constituencies. In the end, it was always in the interest of the Democratic leadership to do so.
With the new Republican majority led by soon-to-be Speaker Newt Gingrich, the caucus has no such leverage, and the Republicans have no such interest. The GOP is not beholden to African-Americans for electoral victories, and there is little if any public mandate to preserve programs or policies of concern to blacks.
Other than for reasons of noblesse oblige, Republicans really do not need to interact with the caucus, as a bloc, for anything. Given the polarities of the 1994 elections, the Republican majority could vote along party lines on all major legislative issues in the future and probably not suffer terribly at the polls in 1996. Adding insult to injury, the Democrats -- in their own bald-faced efforts to recapture a shrinking base of support -- are stumbling over each other in their unabashed move to the middle -- miles apart from policies traditionally embraced by the Black Caucus.
Given these prospects, the Black Caucus could founder in political never-never land, somewhere in the margins between Republican indifference and Democratic intransigence.
Adonis E. Hoffman is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He wrote this commentary for the Los Angeles Times.