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   NATIONAL NEWS
Bush Disappoints Congressional Black Caucus
By: Hazel Trice Edney
NNPA, Washington Correspondent
Originally posted 2/8/2005


WASHINGTON (NNPA) – Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Mel Watt (D-N.C.) and other caucus members say President Bush’s State of the Union speech fell far short of their expectations.

''Measured against the criteria we agreed to use, the president's State of the Union speech, unfortunately, fell short of our expectations and woefully short of what the CBC had hoped to hear,” says Watt, whose group recently met with Bush. “We are disappointed that the president did not acknowledge the dramatic extent to which disparities continue to exist in every area of our lives and did not use this opportunity to rally our country to work on closing these disparities.”

In an interview with NNPA, Watt cited as an example, the president’s request for Congress to fully fund his initiative to protect innocent people from the death penalty by expanding DNA testing for convicted offenders. He said he appreciates the president’s overture, but the CBC agenda consisted of at least five criminal justice issues, including DNA, racial and ethnic profiling, criminal justice reforms focused on prevention and rehabilitation, fair and impartial judges and recidivism.

“If you look at criminal justice, what did he say? DNA? How does that help somebody who is disproportionately stopped by the police or disproportionately prosecuted? It might help you when you get ready to go to the death penalty,” says Watt. “I don’t mean to demean that. DNA is important. But I can’t believe that that is the only response to our justice agenda.”

In his 2001 inaugural address, Bush promised to make anti-racial profiling initiatives a priority by forming initiatives through the office of Attorney General John Ashcroft. But, little has been said about the problem since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Black lawmakers say the failure was limited to criminal justice issues.

“I didn’t hear any real descriptions of programs or ideas,” says Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.).

The CBC had said the president would have three chances to make good on the issues given him at the White House meeting January 26. First, he could have made a public statement to embrace the CBC agenda, consisting of six priority issues - which he did not. Second, they would watch to see if he tangibly dealt with their issues during the State of the Union.

Finally, they would see how initiatives are funded in the president’s budget released on Monday.

The CBC presented an 8-paged document to the president describing disparities in education, health care, economics, criminal and social justice, social security and foreign policy with hopes that he would propose specific policies to close the gaps between Blacks and Whites.
Waters says she has very little hope.

“We have a basic philosophical difference – Democrats and Republicans – for the most part, and the president’s not going to change,” Waters says. “The president said he’s going to cut back all these programs. He said he’s going to protect his tax cuts. He said if Iran and Syria doesn’t get their act together, he’s going to do the same thing he did to Iraq. If he comes out in the State of the Union and tells you what he’s going to do, when we meet him in the back room, he’s not going to change that. That’s what he’s going to do.”

The major issue in the speech was Social Security reform.

“We pointed out to him that if we don’t pay Social Security, you will double the number of African-Americans in poverty in their advanced years,” says Watt.

According to a White House Fact Sheet, the president’s plan would, in a nutshell, allow people to choose to put a portion of their money in a private personal retirement account rather than Social Security per se – with an opportunity for receiving a higher pay out.

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), immediate past chairman of the CBC, is suspicious of the privatization plan.

“I have to begin to wonder why it is that he is pushing these savings accounts,” he says. “Why would you take literally trillions of dollars out of Social Security so that people can then invest them in a questionable stock market basically with questionable returns and with a reduced benefit package when you could leave it there and get the benefit? It doesn’t make any sense at all unless you’re trying to do a favor to the financial services community who has to manage these accounts.”

Many non-Caucus lawmakers agree.

“Social Security provides African-American seniors with 44 percent of their total income and it is the only source of income for one in three African-Americans 65 and older,” states a report from Democratic Leader Sen. Harry Reed (D-Nevada), entitled “African-Americans and Social Security.” Reed sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee. “For these Americans, Social Security’s guaranteed benefit is the only thing standing between them and a life of poverty and destitution.”

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton noted the hedged applause from Republicans at the State of the Union on the privatization of Social Security.

“His problem is far less with us than it is with them. They want to be here three years from now,” says Norton. “The speech showed neither leadership nor courage.”

Not all of the president’s CBC reviews were bad.

“I’m hopeful because I believe in his commitment to strengthen the community college system; his initiative to increase money to battle AIDS among minorities, and the initiative headed up by the first lady to deal with at-risk youth without criminalizing them is a positive program for the youth.

I’m cautiously optimistic,” says Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.).

Cummings says he was also pleased when the president talked about the rate of AIDS among African-American women and the need for health centers in poor areas. Cummings asked especially about health disparities during the White House meeting. Fo example, in 2002, the African-American AIDS diagnosis was 11 times the White diagnosis, 23 times more for Black women and nine times more for Black men.

Cummings says he was also pleased about the president’s support of increased funding for Pell grants, the federal grant of $4,000 awarded to eligible undergraduate students.

“With regards to those things, I think that he gave some consideration to things that we had talked about,” says Cummings.

However Cummings said it was glaring that President Bush failed to mention anything about voting rights of Americans, even after a major gaff during the CBC White House meeting in which he reportedly said, “I don’t know anything about the 1965 Voting Rights Act.”

Cummings says, ''It was disappointing to know that here was the president of the United States who was excited about people voting in Iraq and Afghanistan and talking about how important it was and we’re spending billions of dollars to help accomplish that. But, yet when it came to the State of the Union Address, he did not mention the voting rights of Americans at all.”

Although Rush praised the president, he says he is still bracing himself to see whether the initiatives he mentioned are seriously funded in the budget. “That’s what we’re wanting to see, whether or not there’s any monetary commitments. You know, whether he’s going to put his money where his mouth is.”


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