Black Caucus should do spring cleaning before this fall

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As the midterm elections approach, it appears that each week brings a fresh instance of congressional misdeeds. Many of the most recent occurrences have involved members of the Congressional Black Caucus, which is fond of billing itself as the “conscience of the Congress.”

Over the weekend, it was reported that Congressman Sanford Bishop (D, GA), steered college scholarships awarded by the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation to several relatives and associates. News of Mr. Sanford’s actions come on the heels of news that Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D, TX) also steered funds to several relatives, and place the Georgia congressman in very dubious company.

Legendary artist Vincent van Gogh once said that the conscience is a man’s compass. If so, recent events have made clear that Congress’ self-described instrument of moral navigation is irreparably broken. The revelations of Mr. Bishop’s and Ms. Johnson’s malfeasance should prompt a thorough and long-overdue house-cleaning at the CBC, as well as an opportunity for the group to seriously re-examine its priorities.

According to the CBC Foundation, lawmakers are expressly prohibited from routing scholarship money to their relatives. Mr. Bishop’s wafer-thin defense, however, was that anti-nepotism rules were instituted after he granted the money to his family members and acquaintances.

Although Bishop may not have violated the letter of the foundation’s guidelines, he certainly violated their spirit. The CBC Foundation established its scholarship fund in acknowledgment of the financial burdens many black students face when applying for college. Public officials steering those funds to students of their choice can’t be seen as anything other than what it is: a scandalous breach of trust that deprives needy children of money that defrays seemingly inexorable costs of tuition.

Even during the best of times, aspiring students of all colors are hard-pressed to fund their college endeavors. For minority and disadvantaged students, the scramble for dollars can be even more challenging, a point driven home in a recent report by the College Board. The organization’s study found that more college graduates are saddling themselves with excessive loans that may cripple them financially later in life. Black students are bearing the brunt of this reality: the College Board’s data showed that 27 percent of black bachelor’s degree candidates borrowed more than $30,000 in the 2007-08 academic year – a far higher proportion than the 16 percent of Caucasians, 14 percent of Latinos and 9 percent of Asians.

The self-serving behavior of Reps. Bishop and Johnson also underscore a dynamic that plays a prominent role in the ongoing battle over higher education. Diversity and civil rights advocates have often voiced consternation over legacy admissions, the practice of admitting students to prestigious universities based on their ties to people (often relatives) that colleges wanted to please for financial reasons. These applicants stand little chance of gaining acceptance on their own merits, but the cozy network of alumni, donors, administrators and faculty puts them on a glide path to rear-entry admissions. The same principle holds true for Mr. Bishop and Ms. Johnson. In a society that emphasizes merit over pedigree, why allow the offspring of the well-connected to leap-frog over more deserving candidates?

Additionally, the political ramifications of the CBC’s behavior can’t be understated. Trust in public officials is at an historic low, and the impending November election is shaping up to be a monumental rejection of congressional Democrats and their unpopular agenda. With ethics violations reaching epidemic proportions in Washington, the Democratic majority is confronting the very real possibility of a 1994-style electoral wipeout. The 111th Congress bears the ignominious distinction of being the exact opposite of what Speaker Nancy Pelosi once promised would be the most ethical and transparent America had ever seen.

In Shakespeare’s perennial classic Hamlet, the officer Marcellus declared that “something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” He chose his words carefully, in a way that indicated what ailed the body politic emanated from the top of its hierarchy and radiated downward. The scene recalls our modern-day Congress, which is becoming less and less acquainted with concepts of public trust and self-restraint.

Some continue to push the improbable claim that black congressmen are enduring the political equivalent of racial profiling, or at least being subjected to double standards. That can hardly be considered the driving force behind the spate of investigations and ethical lapses currently bedeviling the political class.

It’s clear the CBC Foundation needs to move quickly to strengthen its internal controls, audit its finances and fully disclose the names of all CBC members that channeled money to relatives or close connections.

But perhaps more importantly, it’s well past time for the black political elite to be held accountable for their actions, and stop employing specious charges of racial bias to deflect from their corrupt behavior. Many of them were elected to be reformers, yet they’re continually re-elected, even as the constituencies that elect them continue to descend further into poverty and crisis.

While Republicans are just as susceptible to the temptations of power as Democrats, one thing is clear: the GOP has not controlled the agenda for at least four years. The Congressional Black Caucus should use the occasion of its legislative meeting this week to take a good, hard look at its priorities, and the actions of its cohorts. If not, voters should foist accountability on these politicians in November.