Congressional Hispanic Caucus struggles to influence legislation

With the midterm elections right around the corner, Democrats are hoping to take back control of the U.S. House of Representatives – and even the U.S. Senate – but what that means for members of the all-Democratic Congressional Hispanic Caucus remains unclear. Hispanic representation in Congress has consistently gone up over the years, and while the number of Hispanic members of Congress is at an all-time high – 45 — their ability to influence legislation has not been reflected in their increasing numbers.

Observers say it is partially due to the overall lack of bipartisanship in Congress, and that has trickled down to the Congressional Hispanic Caucus itself, which started out as a bipartisan group but splintered off over political differences.

That political diversity has manifested in two Hispanic caucuses, the Democratic 31-member Congressional Hispanic Caucus, which boasts two senators; and the Congressional Hispanic Conference, with six GOP members.

Last year, for instance, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus denied membership to South Florida Republican Congressman Carlos Curbelo, whose district includes portions of Miami.

Curbelo told SFMN that it sounded like Democrats seem to care more about the party than helping the Hispanic community. By rejecting him, Curbelo says, the Caucus sent the message that “Hispanics who are Republican or Independent don’t count,” adding, “If you really want to achieve these goals (of advancing the Latino community), you know the most likely way to do it is by working in a bipartisan manner. For either party to do this on their own is very difficult.”

Congressional Hispanic Caucus members meet with former President Barack Obama (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Had the congressman been allowed to join, he says, the Caucus would have been able to claim bipartisan support for various issues.

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus was founded in December 1976 with a handful of then-trailblazers in Congress. Some of their previous successes have included pressuring several administrations to nominate Latinos for high-ranking positions in government and help to propel some of its members to higher positions in Congress.

Even within individual political interests and party differences, the Caucus was able to work largely in a bipartisan matter until 1996, when one issue divided them: Cuba.

Then-Congressman Xavier Becerra, a Democrat from California who at the time was running for chair of the Caucus, traveled to the island. Florida Republicans Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and then-Congressman Lincoln Díaz-Balart — both Cuban Americans — left the Caucus, saying they couldn’t forgive his meeting with Cuban leader Fidel Castro while failing to meet with dissidents on the island. Out of that rift would eventually raise the all-Republican Congressional Hispanic Conference in 2003.

Another minority-led congressional group, the Congressional Black Caucus served as a model for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. Founded five years before the CHC, the CBC has been able to remain bipartisan and currently counts Utah Republican Mia Love as a member.

Nonetheless, some have said the CBC has lost its influence and its ability to connect with the Black community nationwide because the overwhelming number of members are of one party.

Theodore Johnson, a Senior Fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice and a professor at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy, told the SFMN, “A partisan agenda places the party above the minority population the Caucus was created to serve. Certainly, it could be true that one party has better ideas and so the Caucus becomes effectively partisan by championing those ideas. But when party is the primary concern, it is inherently limiting.”

The CHC has another vexing issue going into the next congressional session: differences within its own membership.

With the expected arrival of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, who’s at the vanguard of the rising progressive left after defeating long-time incumbent Congressman Joe Crowley in the primaries earlier this year, moderate Hispanic Democrats could find themselves at odds with her style and tactics.

Washington political consultant Melissa Díaz, said that even with more members, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus will still need to operate within the party, which could still continue to be more politically mainstream.

“They’re [Hispanic members] going to be influential, but they have to take into account the partisan realities in Congress and try to maneuver those in order to make sure they have successful policies in place.”

Congressional Hispanic Caucus members, including Florida freshman Darren Soto, said the Caucus nonetheless is an important tool, allowing members to gather and send a collective message that highlights issues of interest to Latinos nationwide.

“Our Caucus allows me to have a much bigger voice by either joining in unison or leading the fight on issues affecting our nation,” Soto said to SFMN.

Gabriel Poblete is a reporter in the Caplin News’s Washington, D.C., Bureau.

Members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus in 1984 (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)