Can the Congressional Black Caucus clean house?

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With a black president in the White House, the Congressional Black Caucus finds itself in a strange place: rocked by investigations of its members, including high profile ethics charges against “Charlie Rangel (D-NY) and Maxine Waters (D-CA),”: and facing questions about corporate donations and cronyism.

Founded in 1971 with just 13 members, the CBC now boasts a record 42. But in recent months it’s gotten more attention for scandal than for accomplishment. The admission by Texas Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson that she improperly steered $31,000 in Congressional Black Caucus Foundation scholarships to relatives and the children of an aide (money she has since reimbursed), prompted an internal review by the Foundation, a non-profit connected to the CBC mostly in name, and through the 12 legislators who sit on its 37-member board (similar to the way that the Ford Foundation is connected to the Ford corporation).

“We have done this for almost three decades and to the best of our knowledge this is the first time that something like this happened,” said Foundation spokesperson Muriel Cooper.

Cooper also criticized a scathing February New York Times article she said unfairly painted the Foundation and the Caucus as a single entity beholden to big corporations that push products harmful to the black community like alcohol, tobacco and payday loans.

Cooper said the Foundation handed out nearly $700,000 in scholarships to around 300 students in 2009, sent nearly 80 student interns to Washington (seven are featured in this month’s Ebony magazine) and employed 7-8 paid “fellows” at $40,000 a year apiece plus health care, to work on Capitol Hill policy issues including health care reform.

The Times’ story suggested the Foundation spends more on catering for its annual legislative conference, scheduled for September 15-18 this year in Washington, which attracts the black elite from all over the country, along with millions of corporate dollars. Cooper and Foundation supporters say what critics call a week of parties and networking is also one of workshops and panels on the economy, civic engagement, civil rights and education.

“Nobody ever reports on what the black folk are doing during the day,” said one supporter on background, adding that such questions aren’t raised about similar conferences by groups like the Aspen Institute or the Clinton Global Initiative, which also offer lavish parties with corporate donors, and the chance to rub elbows with the powerful.

There are also real questions over whether Caucus members are being specially targeted for scrutiny. Politico reported in November 2009 that all seven active House ethics investigations involved Black lawmakers. In March, University of District of Columbia professor G. Derek Musgrove pointed out that during the 1980s and early ‘90s when Republicans controlled the Justice Department, a third of the Black Caucus was investigated, with no convictions. Still Republicans, led by Newt Gingrich, ran on the supposed ethical troubles of Democrats, something the GOP is doing again this year.

And Musgrove said most of the ethics claims originated with a single conservative “watchdog” group, the National Legal and Policy Center, which routinely targets Democrats.

Joe Madison, who hosts a nationally syndicated talk radio show broadcast from Washington D.C. on XM 169 The Power, says the scrutiny is a sign of blacks’ growing power in Washington.

“Scrutiny is a sport in this town, and the more powerful one is, the more scrutinized one will be,” Madison said. “Is it fair? If you’re not guilty it’s not fair. But what it suggests is that black elected officials have to be above board at all times, and that’s not just members of the CBC.”A question of relevance

The real question for the CBC may not be whether its members are more unethical than other Congressmen. (Louisiana Sen. David Vitter admitted to using a prostitution ring, and Nevada Sen. John Ensign is accused of paying off the husband of his mistress; the couple both having been on his staff.) It might be whether the organization is effective, or still relevant.

In many ways, the CBC represents the old guard of African-American politics; the generation of legendary Chicago Congressman Bobby Rush, who Barack Obama ran against as an ambitious Illinois state Senator (and lost.)

Half the caucus was elected in the decade after the 1990 Census, including seven with Bill Clinton in 1992. Two others, André Carson of Indiana and Kendrick Meek of Florida, occupy seats also won during the Clinton years, by Carson’s grandmother, Julia Carson; and Meek’s mother, Carrie P. Meek.

There’s a wide generation gap between CBC members and a black population whose median age is 30, while the average age of House caucus members is 62, plus Sen. Roland Burris, appointed to fill Obama’s former Illinois seat, who’s 73. The average age of all House members is 55, and 62 in the Senate.

Of the six members in their 40s: Artur Davis of Alabama, Laura Richardson of California, Jesse Jackson Jr. of Illinois, Keith Ellison of Minnesota, Yvette Clarke of New York and Meek, plus Carson, who’s 36, two are retiring: Meek to run for the Senate, and Davis after a failed run for governor.

And it’s unlikely the CBC will be infused with new blood anytime soon due to heavily gerrymandered districts. Incumbents of all ethnicities rarely face competitive elections. Of the Black incumbents who have faced primaries so far this year, only Michigan’s Caroline Cheeks Kilpatrick, whose son, former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick is in prison on parole violation charges stemming from an obstruction of justice case, was defeated (by former State Sen. Hansen Clarke, who is white.)

The caucus has even struggled to form a strong working relationship with Obama, whose aides some caucus members have accused of ignoring the economic problems facing their largely urban districts, which were in recession long before 2007.

Black unemployment stands at 15.6 percent, Hispanic at 12.1, versus 9.5 percent overall and 8.6 percent for whites.

After November, the caucus could face a more conservative Congress with a much smaller Democratic margin, or even a Republican-controlled body, making passage of further stimulus for the battered urban core all-but impossible.

And yet, a smaller Democratic majority could give the 42-member bloc greater leverage in the House, where it is one of the largest Caucuses (the Progressive Caucus has 83 members, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus has 23.)

But the CBC might also confront something not seen in Congress since J.C. Watts left in 2003.

Four black Republicans are running this year, including Tim Scott, who beat Strom Thurmond’s son in a heavily Republican South Carolina district he’s expected to win in November. Bill Randall in North Carolina and Bill Marcy in Mississippi face tougher races in heavily Democratic districts. And tea party groups are pinning their hopes on Allen West, a controversial, vocal opponent of the NAACP and President Obama, in southern Florida.

Watts famously refused to join the CBC, accusing its members of calling him an Uncle Tom and calling them “race hustling poverty pimps.” The only other Black Republicans ever elected to Congress – Gary Franks of Connecticut, Ed Brooke of Massachusetts, and Melvin Evans of the U.S. Virgin Islands, were members.

A Scott campaign spokesman, Matt Wills, would not comment on whether Scott would join the Caucus if asked, saying they’re focused on the election.

West’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

For now, Waters and Rangel are digging in for a fight.

And Madison says the caucus is far from irrelevant.

“You have to keep in mind, we’ve never had as many members of the CBC in positions of power, chairing influential committees such as judiciary, and up until recently, ways and means.” Edolphus Towns (D-NY) chairs the House Oversight and Government Reform committee, and James Clyburn (D-SC) is majority whip.

“As it relates to their influence, they are very relevant.”