Black Democrats Against the Office of Congressional Ethics

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Dec. 3 2010 1:53 PM

Black Democrats Against the Office of Congressional Ethics

Eric Ostermeier breaks down the vote against censuring Rep. Charlie Rangel and finds that the best predictor of opposition was membership in the Congressional Black Caucus.

In total, 36 of 37 voting African-American members of the House voted against censure, or 97 percent - including Rangel, who also cast a 'nay' vote in his defense.

Two black representatives did not vote: Alcee Hastings (FL-23) and outgoing member Kendrick Meek (FL-17).

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The one "nay" in the CBC came from Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.), who bungled a primary campaign for governor of Alabama this year despite voting against every major Obama initiative to prove his conservative bona fides. But he's gone in January. As Suzy Khimm reports, the rest of the CBC is interested in helping Republicans shutter the Office of Congressional Ethics, created by Democrats after they took back Congress in 2006.

Among them are CBC member Rep. William Lacy Clay of Missouri, who told Mother Jones : "If the decision were up to me, I would not reauthorize it—it’s so unprecedented and untraditional in the history of this institution. It’s duplicitous, it’s a waste of taxpayer money...I don't see a need for it." When asked whether simply reforming the office would suffice, Clay quashed the notion: "There should be no place for it here in this institution."

Another CBC member, Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio), introduced the resolution to curb the OCE's authority. Now the Democrat says she is "open" to shuttering the independent panel in the next Congress. "All options are on the table." ... In an interview with Mother Jones , Fudge argued that the OCE has allowed investigations to go forward on flimsy evidence. As a result, members have been sullied by the mere implication that they were under investigation, even if the charges were baseless. "For someone to just arbitrarily read a newspaper, get a phone call, with no documentation, nothing to support an investigation and just to start to investigate a member—I think goes way, way beyond what is fair, what is just, what is right for members of this body." Clay added that the House Ethics Committee has proven itself capable of carrying out its own investigations, whereas the OCE has "allowed anyone with an ax to grind with a member to file a complaint."

You really can't underestimate the level of cynicism here. Black Democrats ascertained , mostly correctly, that there was no precedent for censuring Rangel over the specific violations he'd been accused of. When Rangel said -- repeatedly -- that the censure was about repairing political damage more than hard and fast precedent, they were with him. They have been saying for years that the ethics charges hitting members of Congress fall disproportionately on black Democrats who make mistakes that did not used to be mistakes, like accepting certain kinds of junkets. There is a sense that they are being treated unfairly because... well, do I even need to say it? And so as on the gerrymandering mandated by the Voting Rights Act, you've got an issue that pits black Democrats against the rest of their party and allies them with Republicans.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter.