It’s an ethics war, stupid

Over the course of the past three years, Congress-watchers have remarked on the disproportionately high number of ethics investigations targeting African-Americans. The numbers are indeed extraordinary — at one point in 2010, all of the full cases before the House Ethics Committee involved black members. Today five of the eight cases before that body involve blacks.

The commentary on this development has revolved around two unhelpful questions: (1) Are the members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) more corrupt than their white counterparts? And (2) is the ethics process racist? 

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Both lines of questioning miss the point. The disproportionate number of ethics investigations of black members is a product of a return of the ethics wars. 

When writing my book Rumor, Repression, and Racial Politics, which examines black elected officials’ allegations of state and news media repression in the years between 1965 and 1995, I found that the partisan battles of the last 30 years have had a disproportionate effect on black elected officials. In the 1980s and early ’90s, for instance, when many Democrats alleged that the Reagan and Bush Justice Departments were targeting Democratic lawmakers for official corruption investigations, black elected officials were fives times more likely than their white counterparts to be investigated by federal authorities. This pattern of disproportionate investigation has reemerged today through the newly created ethics process in the House. 

In 2008, then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) created the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) to make good on her promise to better police the ethics of Congress. The House ethics process had been moribund since the late 1990s, when the parties called a truce in the “ethics wars” that had claimed two Speakers and several rank-and-file members. 

The OCE, which accepts allegations of misconduct against members of Congress from any source and, when appropriate, forwards recommendations for further investigation to the House Ethics Committee, has been exceedingly busy, completing 34 investigations to date and making a string of referrals to the Ethics Committee. 

The return of a robust ethics process, unfortunately, has created an opening for a resumption of the ethics war. 

Between 2009 and 2012, more than half of the ethics investigations involving black members of Congress were submitted to the OCE or the Ethics Committee by conservative groups with long and questionable histories of bringing politically motivated complaints against Democrats, and black Democrats in particular. In 2009, the National Legal and Policy Center (NPLC), a self-described “conservative watchdog organization,” filed claims with the OCE against six members of the CBC. The following year, NPLC directly petitioned the Ethics Committee to investigate Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.). Additionally, in 2009, the Landmark Legal Foundation, a conservative legal group led by shock jock Mark Levin, asked the OCE to investigate Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.). And in 2011, Judicial Watch, another conservative legal group, filed sexual harassment charges against Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.) on behalf of a Republican female staffer who, just by chance, was simultaneously releasing and attempting to promote a novel about race, sex and power on Capitol Hill. 

Of the nine complaints listed above, five were dismissed, three are unresolved and one led to a reprimand by the Ethics Committee. 

In other words, conservative groups are using the newly reinvigorated House ethics process to wage an ethics war against Democratic members of Congress, and true to the pattern established in the 1980s, they have targeted a disproportionate number of African-Americans. Democrats, incidentally, are fighting back, recently launching a website (HouseofScandal.org) to bring public attention to the ethical woes of several Republican members.

This poses a dilemma for good-

government advocates. Can they create a robust ethics process that addresses wrongdoing by members of Congress and ensures that such a process is not put to use by the parties and affiliated groups in an ethics war? Rather than engage this important question, good-government groups have claimed that the ethics process is fair or that black members are more unethical than their white counterparts. Meanwhile, both parties appear poised to use the ethics issue as a weapon in the run-up to the 2012 election. 

Musgrove is an assistant professor of history at the University of the District of Columbia. He is the author of Rumor, Repression, and Racial Politics: How the Harassment of Black Elected Officials Shaped Post-Civil Rights America.