MEMBERS of the Congressional Black Caucus see more changes this year in their organization than in past sessions of Congress. The most visible include the first Republican member in half a century, the largest number, 26, of black members ever in Congress, and the retirement of an influential committee chairman who was a caucus member.
In addition, there's a new chairman: Rep. Edolphus Towns (D) of New York (Brooklyn), who is in his fifth term in Congress.
But, over the long haul, the biggest change of all has been in the way caucus members operate in Congress - and in their legislative effectiveness. They've moved ``from almost the ideological [liberal] fringe of the Democratic Party in the House to a much more significant role,'' says Congress-watcher Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute.
Caucus members now are more moderate than when the organization was formed in 1969, and ``are moving into the mainstream of the Democratic Party,'' he adds.
Today a number of black members of Congress, such as Rep. John Conyers (D) of Michigan, are in senior positions as committee and subcommittee chairmen. Mr. Ornstein says: ``Now you have members of the caucus in the room when the deals are being made.''
As black members of the House have risen through the normal seniority ranks to chairmanships ``what's interesting is that you haven't gotten much policy change,'' says David Mason, federal liaison of the Heritage Foundation and a former congressional staff member. ``They've become known for pursuing legislation that's not usually on the black agenda. As politicians rise in seniority, they tend to broaden in concerns.''
Rep. William Gray III (D) of Pennsylvania, a member of the Black Caucus, has risen to the No. 3 position in the House Democratic leadership, as majority whip. He is just behind House Speaker Thomas Foley (D) of Washington and House majority leader Richard Gephardt (D) of Missouri.
This year the caucus has its first Republican in more than 50 years - and a conservative member at that. Rep. Gary Franks of Connecticut is the first Republican member of the caucus in more than 50 years. He says he expects to support the conservative Republican concept of trying to aid poor and minority Americans by providing vouchers for housing and education, and through special inner-city enterprise zones, rather than backing the traditional government programs.
All 26 caucus members serve in the House of Representatives; they comprise 5 percent of the 535 members of Congress; blacks comprise 12 percent of the nation's people. The last black senator, Edward Brooke (R) of Massachusetts, was unseated in the 1978 election.
Throughout much of last year's political campaign many election observers had thought that North Carolina's Democratic Senate candidate, Harvey Gantt, who is black, might win, but incumbent Republican Jesse Helms wound up defeating him.
Until his retirement this year, one of the more influential Black Caucus members in Congress had been Rep. Augustus Hawkins (D) of California, who for years was chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee. He was known in recent years for originating or supporting liberal proposals for education and child-care programs.
Although individual black members of Congress have risen in rank and effectiveness in recent years, the Black Caucus as a body ``hasn't lived up to the promise that it had when it was established,'' says James Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University.
``It has not been a focus of national black policy and leadership,'' Dr. Thurber says. That has fallen to others, most notably the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
Still, the caucus has helped set the parameters of debate on civil rights legislation of recent years, Thurber says, noting that when the deficit-reducing Gramm-Rudman-Hollings bill was enacted they saw to it that the basic welfare programs, like Social Security, were exempted from automatic trims.