The Ethics of Bigotry, Part I: A Dubious Complaint

The Congressional Black Caucus is complaining that the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE)is unfairly targeting black members. Seven African-American Congress members are the targets of full investigations, 15% of the total black members of the House. And they are the only members currently under a complete investigation.

That last sentence is certainly odd, and bears some explaining. Still, it is not as if white members of Congress aren’t being scrutinized: a well-publicized, inadvertent leak from the House Ethics Committee (which works with, but is distinct from, the OCE—this post earlier had this wrong, and Ethics Alarms thanks the OCE for a quick correction)  showed nearly 40 members of Congress in some stage of investigation. The  article in Politico (linked above) said that the Caucus was “fuming” about the treatment of former Rep. William Jefferson. Say what? Jefferson, who was just sentenced to serve time in prison, refused to do his duty and resign when he was caught with $90,000 of bribery money in his office freezer! The CBC thoroughly embarrassed itself by supporting Jefferson, a self-evident crook, and its current complaint is more of the same. Politico also reported that some of the black lawmakers allege that race has played a part in the ongoing investigations of Rep. Charles Rangel. That’s the same Rangel who is accumulating serious ethics violations—not allegations, clear violations— like bad drivers accumulate traffic tickets. He has admitted to most of them, including neglecting to report significant income to the I.R.S., and he heads the Ways and Means Committee, which writes tax laws.  “Appearance of impropriety,” anyone?

The activities that triggered the ethics investigation of each of the black House members  are serious, substantive, and in most cases,  proven. Politico quotes a CBC member that Rep. Maxine Waters, one of the seven, is furious over her investigation, but that says more about her sense of entitlement than it does about her guilt. Citizens for Responsible Ethics and Responsibility (CREW), a left-leaning watchdog organization that typically is far more critical of Republicans than Democrats, has named Waters one of the “Most Corrupt” members of Congress, and its case is tight. So is the case against Rep. Laura Richardson, who CREW has described as a “deadbeat” for not paying bills, defaulting on loans, and having neighbors take care of her home and property.

Charging the ethics committee with racial bias for investigating black members whose conduct richly deserves investigation suggests that the Black Caucus doesn’t believe its members should be held to reasonable ethics standards. If some members are corrupt or otherwise unethical, then the CBC should support their investigation and sanctions, if warranted. Yes: absolutely make certain that the ethics process is as stringent for white politicians as black.  Based on the evidence, I don’t see that this is a real issue. But complaining that obvious ethics violators like Rangel, Jefferson and Waters are being discriminated against raises questions about Caucus priorities. Its first obligation is good government, not protecting its own from the consequences of blatant ethical misconduct.

If the CBC doesn’t want its members to face ethics inquiries, it should urge its members to be  ethical.

3 thoughts on “The Ethics of Bigotry, Part I: A Dubious Complaint

  1. I potentially think that there is some “reading between the lines” that needs to be done here. Look at the issue again and correlate with our list of ethics misconceptions and rationalizations. Perhaps the CBC is saying “Racism” because they think their conduct is justified when compared to other congressional member’s conduct. We all know that’s an ethics trap – So maybe the right question to be asking the CBC is “What’s your measure for being treated differently?” or even “What conduct have you witnessed that you think these are trivial matters?” Obviously the CBC has fallen into an ethics trap, so let’s get to the real issue here.

  2. Jack,
    There’s also the serious potential for the “our members may be corrupt, but the rules are being selectively enforced” justification that inevitably follows in such cases (as in Barry Bonds, or the percentage of Black-American arrests)

    Even if there’s reason to think that a rule is being used to target a certain group doesn’t make violating it somehow less bad. There’s little doubt in my mind the drug laws enforced more harshly on blacks, or that celebrities often get off with wrist-slaps while the rest of us would be in cuffs, but it doesn’t change anything. If you knowingly engage in an act which you knew was illegal, you’re just as guilty as those who avoided arrest (just unlucky).

    [At which point I step down off my soap box and fade back into the aether]

  3. Pingback: The Unethical Culture of the Congressional Black Caucus « Ethics Alarms

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