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.
In short, the disproportionate number of Ethics Committee investigations of members of the CBC is the product of several right-wing legal groups' efforts to use the OCE to attack the Democratic Party by targeting its most loyal constituency. Republicans have found blacks a particularly attractive target in recent years because white Democrats refuse to defend them, perhaps out of fear that doing so will alienate white Democratic voters. (Think Jeremiah Wright, ACORN, the New Black Panther Party and Shirley Sherrod: all fabricated controversies generated and pushed by right-wing media and political organizations.)
Thus, the recent spate of Ethics Committee investigations of black members of Congress is not really about those black members. It is a product of the partisan warfare that has engulfed Washington, D.C., in the last several decades, a partisan warfare in which Republicans have freely used race to attack Democrats.
What should be done about it? How can lawmakers be held accountable in a time when both political parties use charges of ethical impropriety as political weapons? First, Democrats should allow the ethics process to run its course. A number of freshman Democrats in swing districts — including Representatives Michael Arcuri (D-N.Y.), Debbie Halvorson (D-Ill.), Paul Hodes (D-N.H.), Mary Jo Kilroy (D-Ohio), Ann Kirkpatrick (D-Ariz.) Walter Minnick (D-Idaho), Zack Space (D-Ohio), Betty Sutton (D-Ohio) and John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) — have called for Rangel to resign, apparently hoping that so doing will shield them from Republican efforts, already under way, to link them to the Harlem lawmaker in the midterm elections. They miss the point. These investigations are not about the individual members but about partisan warfare. Republicans will use the Rangel and Waters cases as electoral issues, whether or not Democrats jump the gun and oust these members before they have had a chance to defend themselves.
Second, Democrats (and I say Democrats because Republicans are generating and benefiting from the cases discussed here) need to reform the OCE to make it less susceptible to abuse. Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) has introduced legislation, cosponsored by 19 members of the CBC, that would restrict disclosure of investigations by the OCE and require that body to obtain a sworn complaint from a citizen with personal knowledge of the alleged wrongdoing before initiating a probe. Though lambasted by critics as an attempt to weaken the OCE, the legislation would actually make it harder for partisan groups to use the panel to attack their political opposition. Hopefully, Democrats will overcome the racial politics of the Rangel and Waters investigations to implement policies that will ensure a robust ethics process that is less vulnerable to abuse.
G. Derek Musgrove is a professor of history at the University of the District of Columbia. He is currently finishing a book, The Harassment of Black Elected Officials: Repression, Rumors of Repression, and Racial Politics, 1965-1995, for the University of Georgia Press.