Are Congressional ethics investigations racially motivated?
OPINION - The preponderance of investigations against black Congressional figures underscores a disturbing trend of influence trading and double-standards...
Legitimate ethics investigations, or racially motivated witch hunts? That appears to be the question for some members of the Congressional Black Caucus, who last week asked the House to sharply curtail the investigative powers of the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), an independent body created in 2008 at the behest of various watchdog groups.
The OCE’s focus on accusations involving black lawmakers — at least eight to date — has created consternation amongst CBC members, and led to speculation that the ethics organization might be engaging in a political version of racial profiling.
Given the relatively small number of black Congressional representatives and the size of the Democratic majority, the investigative actions might on their face appear unduly tilted toward African-American Congressmen.
The OCE can investigate allegations of impropriety, but ultimate enforcement and sanction authority rests with the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct. And according to the New York Times, the standards committee has dismissed the overwhelming majority of cases referred to it by OCE.
It would be a stretch to think the investigations are racial in nature, even given the fact that many of the targets are black. But on some level, the ethics body’s actions would suggest it might be selectively pursuing what some would call “low-hanging fruit” – many of the Congressman under threat are visible figures, yet don’t control the real levers of power in Washington. The only high profile black Congressional figure to be admonished was Harlem Democrat Charles Rangel, dean of the New York delegation and the chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee.
The OCE’s investigations do bear a whiff of double-standards. Some watchdog groups grind their teeth at the continued luck of Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank. The controversial Democrat was romantically involved with a Fannie Mae executive who was a key figure in the agency’s lobbying efforts to relax lending restrictions that were at the heart of the global financial meltdown.
Meanwhile, only by announcing retirement did Connecticut Democratic Senator Christopher Dodd escape repercussions from his own ethics morass, amid revelation that he was connected to a controversial mortgage lending program run by Countrywide Financial Corporation. North Dakota Democratic Senator Kent Conrad was also linked to Countrywide, but has yet to be admonished.
That said, the preponderance of investigations against black Congressional figures underscore something arguably more important – a disturbing trend of influence trading and double-standards. Many black lawmakers have engaged in behavior that belie Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s now famous pledge to preside over the most honest, ethical and transparent Congress the country had ever seen. According to data from independent watchdog Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), 13 of 22 Congressional members currently being investigated are Democrats.
A meticulously reported New York Times article in February details the extent to which many CBC members have profited personally and politically from many of the institutions they berate publicly. According to the report, Congressional Black Caucus members collected at least $55 million from a labyrinth of corporations.
And even as the global economy suffered a near-collapse in 2008, CBC members indulged in lavish conventions and retired a $4 million dollar mortgage on its Embassy Row headquarters. A pity that struggling U.S. homeowners — many of them constituents of CBC members — could not rely on similarly charitable benefactors.
The moral of this story? Black Congressional members would be better served attending to the needs of those who elected them, rather than reveling in the trappings of Washington’s wealth and influence.