Gwen Moore does not seem like anybody’s idea of a corporate stooge. The Milwaukee Democrat, a single mom who once survived on welfare, has sponsored efforts to boost public housing, reproductive freedom, food-stamp benefits, Social Security payments, environmental protection, veterans benefits and the minimum wage. And that’s just in the past year.
So it’s strange to see Moore associated with one of the more noxious campaigns underway on Capitol Hill: the Wall Street effort to unravel key sections of Dodd-Frank. After all, the 2010 financial reform was meant to curb the very same excesses that, not so long ago, devastated the economy and put many of Moore’s constituents out of their jobs and their homes.
The assault on Dodd-Frank relies on support from three different groups. The GOP isn’t shy about its antipathy to government regulations, and a pro-business coalition known as the New Democrats has come to its aid. But there is also a third, lesser-known faction: the Congressional Black Caucus. Moore, along with colleagues such as New York’s Gregory Meeks, Georgia’s David Scott, Missouri’s Lacy Clay and Alabama’s Terri Sewell, has pushed for a host of seemingly arcane measures that would undermine Dodd-Frank’s rules on financial derivatives, the complex contracts at the heart of the 2008 meltdown. She is the co-sponsor of multiple measures that would once again allow Wall Street to shift its riskiest transactions out of the view of regulators.
The CBC is not an organization known for airing its dirty laundry in public. But over the last year, the tawdriness of its pro-Wall Street votes has become so blatant that several members have started to push back, led by Maxine Waters, the veteran Los Angeles legislator who serves as the top Democrat on the financial services panel. To many in the CBC, it feels like a battle for the storied caucus’s soul — and the result could dictate the direction of economic policy for the Democratic Party at large.
“People are sick about what they’re doing,” says one CBC member. “Some things are just uncharacteristic of certain people. Everybody here has a brand. If your brand is down with the people, standing up for the little guy, then all of a sudden you’re on some bills that have got you helping Goldman Sachs have looser regulations on derivatives? It’s like — wait, what the hell is that?”
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About a decade after the CBC’s 1971 founding, some 20 black lobbyists started holding informal gatherings around Washington. The Civil Rights movement had ushered more African-Americans into Congress, and those lawmakers brought black staffers with them. Many of them, like former staffers all over Capitol Hill, wound up on K Street.
The CBC had always focused on social justice, but the lobbyists — who eventually named themselves the Second Wednesday Group — had more prosaic aims. “It was just a networking group of African-American lobbyists, to maybe be an inspiration for African-American lobbyists entering the lobbying field,” says David Warr of the International Trademark Association, who ran the organization in the 1990s. Over time, it built a vibrant community of black lobbyists and Hill staffers.
Today, the organization — now known as the Washington Government Relations Group — is a significant nexus of influence. At its regular policy gatherings, lobbyists can interact with lawmakers and staffers. Last year’s annual gala was held at the French Embassy.
But Capitol Hill is still overwhelmingly white, and even with a former CBC member in the White House, the power class is far from fully integrated. One white former representative told us he was stunned the first time he attended a black colleague’s fundraiser during President Barack Obama’s first term. “It was very much a standard fundraiser in a townhouse on Capitol Hill, probably on South Capitol Street, nicely catered, everything was identical, except I was the only white guy there,” he recalls. “There were lots of African-American lobbyists, most of them had probably worked as a staffer for somebody, and then they were hired by whoever it was they lobbied for specifically to lobby the CBC.”