Ethics does not appear to be a priority for the Congressional Black Caucus. Instead, the C.B.C. regards ethical rules and standards as a nuisance, and, like law enforcement, color-blind college admissions and merit-based promotions, a tool of racism. In what A.E.I. government ethics scholar Norman Ornstein correctly dubbed “a pretty good working definition of chutzpah,” the Caucus is calling for restrictions on the new Office of Congressional Ethics, because it is interfering with the dubious, sometimes illegal and often profitable habits of a lot of C.B.C. members.
In an ethical organization, a responsible one dedicated to good government and public service over protecting its members from appropriate ethics oversight, the response to the spate of ethics allegations against Congressional Black Caucus members would be, “All right, we better work on cleaning up our act.” This, however, is the group that thought former member Rep. William Jefferson, now a convicted felon, was unfairly suspected of wrongdoing after $90,000 of bribe money turned up in his office freezer. Thus the Caucus argues that the disproportionately large number of black members of Congress who have been the subject of ethics investigations is only proof of institutional racism, not an indication that too many African-American Representatives assumed that fear of the race card would protect them from getting caught when they played fast and loose with the rules.
Representative Marcia L. Fudge, Democrat from Ohio, introduced a resolution late last week, co-sponsored by 19 other black caucus members, calling for a prohibition on the release of most investigative reports prepared by the Office of Congressional Ethics, and for preventing the office from initiating its own inquiries. Fudge said the changes were required because the O.C.E. has taken up “frivolous investigations” that have unfairly damaged the reputation of House members. This is, as virtually every Congressional watch-dog group has noted, outrageous, since the Congressional Black Caucus members who have been and are being investigated (like House Ways and Means Chairman Charles Rangel) have or had serious and substantive charges against them. The release of the O.C.E.’s investigation reports typically demonstrate that charges were not frivolous, and in most cases, that the O.C.E. is overly generous with its presumption of innocent intent.
What’s really going on here? Just this: Too many powerful members of the C.B.C., like Rangel and Watts Congresswoman Maxine Waters, are finally under the uncomfortable scrutiny that their unethical conduct richly deserves. Even though Congress is a cesspool of corruption, and even though the Office of Congressional Ethics has represented a welcome, if small, step forward in efforts to change the culture on Capitol Hill, members of the C.B.C. are primarily interested in protecting their unethical colleagues and are willing to use racial politics to do it.
This indicates warped priorities and an unethical culture in the Caucus. If its members want to know why so many of its members are in ethics trouble, they need look no further than their own organization for the answer.