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Congressional Hispanic Caucus Weakened By Phony Air of Nonpartisanship
Consejo de Congresistas hispanos debilitado por un falso ambiente de imparcialidad
By James E. Garcia
April 17, 2001
So what should we make of this week's long-overdue meeting between President Bush and representatives of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus?
To hear New Jersey Congressman Robert Menendez tell it, the 45-minute chat with the president was basically a waste of time. After the meeting, Menendez described Bush as "long on listening and short on commitment."
Among the non-commitments made by the President, Menendez listed Bush's refusal to say if he'd end the U.S. military's bombing exercises on the island of Vieques, Puerto Rico. Bush also did not back off from proposed budget cuts for the Small Business Administration, which caucus members say will harm Hispanics and other minority entrepreneurs nationwide. The caucus also wanted a commitment for more funding for colleges and universities with large Hispanic enrollments. Bush didn't budge there either.
The one area where Bush did get specific involved his opposition to proposed legislation granting legal U.S. residency to possibly millions of undocumented immigrants. The caucus says these immigrants have lived and worked here for years and contribute to America's prosperity, and therefore they deserve a chance at citizenship.
Bush prefers increasing the number of short-term visas issued to foreign workers. That idea is backed by farmers and others who profit from a steady supply of cheap labor, though it's also gained the support of Mexico president Vicente Fox. Expanding the temporary guest worker program, by the way, also is more to the liking of Republican leaders who worry that another wave of legalized immigrants would have the practical effect of recharge the ranks of the Democratic party. Most new immigrants vote for Democrats.
Let's get back to Bush's meeting with the Hispanic caucus.
There are a number of reasons why the caucus walked away empty handed from its meeting with Bush.
First, caucus members are all Democrats, even though it continues to portray itself as being nonpartisan. While there was a time when all-for-one and one-for-all bipartisanship made sense, I think this sort of political androgyny weakens the group and limits its ability to achieve its goals in and out of the Democratic Party.
Caucus Chairman Silvestre Reyes says the group has formed a political action committee to help Latinos get elected to Congress. Does it really seem likely, though, that contributors will donate money to the PAC regardless of whether the candidates it helps are Democrat or Republican?
Another weakness is the caucus's unwillingness to acknowledge that it has a powerful ally in Congress. I'm talking about the 37 members of the Congressional Black caucus. True, the two groups don't and won't always see eye to eye, but joining forces more often would produce a Congressional voting bloc of 55 U.S. representatives.
Together, the Black and Hispanic caucuses would make up a formidable 12 percent of the 435 members of Congress. Bush and Congressional Republican leaders would have hard time ignoring such a powerful coalition.
Let's face it, Latinos are making political gains across the country, but many Latinos either cannot or will not register to vote. It is no small matter that so many Latinos in the U.S. today are foreign born or under 18 years old. We may be 12 or 13 percent of the population, but it'll be a while before we're being elected at that rate.
The Hispanic caucus might also take a lesson from the Black caucus. Namely, there are times when you just have to get loud. "Timid" is not a word anyone would use to describe the members of the Black caucus. But many Latinos outside of Washington often wonder why our representatives in Congress are not more assertive. There are civil ways to make demands. But there should never be any confusion between a demand and a polite request.
President Bush likes to say he respects Hispanic culture and that he wants to win over more Hispanic voters. But let's face it, Bush's pledge to reach across party lines and represent all Americans, including all Hispanics, just ain't happening. Bush has his priorities. And, logically, they are the priorities of the Republican Party.
I think it's time the Democrats in the Congressional Hispanic caucus made Bush earn that respect, instead of rolling over in the name of phony non-partisanship.
Garcia is editor of politicomagazine.com. E-mail the writer at Politico1@aol.com