Nearly half of the members of the Congressional Black Caucus have agreed to try to reduce the power of an independent ethics office that Democrats pushed for after gaining control of Congress. Rep. Marcia Fudge, an Ohio Democrat, has worked with 19 other members of the CBC to reduce the amount of power held by the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) to open investigations and publicize its findings. The office is run by a panel of private citizens.
The move is not supported by all 42 members of the caucus, including House Whip James Clyburn. This implies to some that the resolution is likely not going to be of significance.
Since the ethics office was created, it has opened investigations on eight members of the CBC, including Charlie Rangel, a prominent New York Democrat. Five others were investigated over trips to the Caribbean that were privately funded. Many of those being subjected to the investigation are co-sponsors of the resolution.
In a statement, Fudge argued that the office is too powerful and that the changes would prevent "trials in the court of public opinion."
"The processes must be fair to all people involved," Fudge said. "OCE is currently the accuser, judge and jury."
I have expressed concern over the funding sources of members of the CBC. At the same time, when I heard that so many of them are worried about this particular committee, I wondered if there might be substance to their complaints. We all know how the game of politics works: An ethical violation is typically in the eye of the beholder. What appears to be a crime by those in power might have been business as usual in another context. Politicians bend rules, indict one another and engage in regular ethical violations, but in many cases, the violations are a necessary evil in order to function in a complex system polluted by unreasonably stringent and ambiguously interpreted regulations. For example, the trips to the Caribbean made by some of the CBC members that are being investigated were actually approved by the Ethics committee before they were ever taken, so it is possible that they were not aware of any potential rules violations.
It is easy to imagine a congressman being indicted on baseless charges, since it happens all the time. But in some cases, being investigated, indicted or accused can be as politically devastating as actually having committed the crime. For some reason, people believe what they read and see in the media, even when it's not the truth. The fact that this investigative panel can make public accusations against a lawmaker, shortly before an election, opens the door to problematic behavior.
Fudge's desire to keep allegations private also makes sense in a world of selective investigations: It is not infeasible that the committee could be on a witch hunt and just happens to argue that black members of Congress are more corrupt than other politicians. Racial profiling doesn't stop when you arrive on Capitol Hill, and some would argue that it actually increases.
At the same time, one can't overlook the fact that some of those who want to limit the power of the special panel happen to be the ones who are being investigated.In light of the long list of perceived ethical violations at the hands of the CBC, we all have reason to be suspicious. The key point to remember, however, is that there are 42 members of the Congressional Black Caucus, and we can't paint them all with one stripe.
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Dr. Boyce Watkins is the founder of the Your Black World Coalition and the author of the new book 'Black American Money.' To have Dr. Boyce's commentary delivered to your e-mail, please click here.