Race, Ethics and Partisan Warfare

An anonymous member of the Congressional Black Caucus charged that black lawmakers are being targeted in ethics investigations. Some say the whistle-blower is playing the race card. But that nameless CBC member is right.

Recently, an anonymous member of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) charged that the ethics investigations of Representatives Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) and Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) demonstrate that black lawmakers face disproportionate levels of ethical investigation than their white colleagues.

Right-wing pundits, like Bernie Goldberg, immediately cried foul, arguing that the assertion constituted “playing the race card” — at this point, an old and tired right-wing response to African Americans’ identification of racial disparities. Good government watchdogs, like Meredith McGehee of the Campaign Legal Center, argued that the investigations aren’t racially biased. When constituents don’t hold an elected official accountable — when they’ve held that position for years and years virtually uncontested — they are more likely to be vulnerable to the temptations of unethical behavior, a claim for which she offered no proof.

But that nameless CBC member is correct.

Since 2008 the House Ethics Committee has devoted a disproportionate amount of its time to cases involving black members of Congress. Of the 42 members of the CBC in the House of Representatives, seven, or 16.5 percent, have been investigated by the Ethics Committee in the past two years. Though the committee does not release information about whom it is investigating unless formal charges are brought, it can safely be argued that no comparable percentage of white members have faced investigation. When we add up the published reports of cases, like the investigations of Rep. Eric Massa and the PMA Group, the number of white members investigated in the past two years appears to be more like 35, or just shy of 9 percent

These figures, in and of themselves, do not suggest a sinister intent on the part of ethics investigators. If members of the CBC disproportionately engage in graft, they should be disproportionately investigated by the Ethics Committee. But there is no evidence that members of the CBC disproportionately engage in graft. There is evidence, however, that right-wing legal organizations are using the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), which refers cases to the Ethics Committee, to target black members of Congress.