Racism at Play in Congressional Ethics Probes?

Rep. Maxine Waters (D-California) is now under investigation for ethics violations.  Waters, who is African American and one of the most progressive members of Congress, has been added to the growing list of members of Congress being investigated for possible violations by the House Ethics Committee, including Rep. Charles Rangel (D-New York).  The House Ethics Committee is predominantly white, although it does have one African-American member, G.K. Butterlfield (D-North Carolina).  While that fact in and of itself doesn’t suggest racism may be at play in these ethics probes, another fact does.   All active ethics investigation are of black lawmakers.  There is not a single white lawmaker under investigation.  It’s not that white lawmakers have not been suspected of ethics violations.  They have.

According to a document leaked to The Washington Post in late October of this year, nearly three dozen lawmakers have come under scrutiny this year by either the House Ethics Committee or the Office of Congressional Ethic (OCE)i. While the list contained a substantial number of white lawmakers, the ethics committee has not yet launched formal investigative subcommittees of any of the white lawmakers — as it has with the seven African-American members.   Black lawmakers can be “easy targets” for ethics watchdog groups because they have less money — both personally and in their campaign accounts (which can be used to pay members’ legal bills) — to defend themselves than do their white colleagues.

A story by John Bresnahan at Politico.com (which originally ran this story on Nov.4, 2009) quotes an aide to a senior black Democrat saying:

“It is kind of crazy. How can it be that the ethics committee only investigates African-Americans? It doesn’t make sense.”

Crazy, indeed, especially given the kinds of shenanigans that white lawmakers have been involved in, such as Tom DeLay.  Currently, a number of white lawmakers — including senior House Appropriations Committee members John Murtha (D-Pa.), Pete Visclosky (D-Ind.), Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.) and Jim Moran (D-Va.) — have drawn the attention of the committee and the OCE.   The two congressional ethics watchdogs are looking into these members’ ties to the PMA Group, a now-defunct lobbying firm that won tens of millions of dollars in earmarks from members of the Appropriations Committee. The lawmakers who arranged for the earmarks received hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from PMA’s lobbying clients.  The Politico.com article says it seems unlikely that the PMA case will become the subject of a full-blown ethics committee investigation. The Justice Department is also looking into the PMA allegations; the FBI raided PMA’s office last year, and Visclosky and his former chief of staff have been served with document subpoenas. And under ethics committee rules, the panel cannot conduct an investigation of any member or staffer already being probed by a law enforcement agency.

While racism is likely not the only factor operating here – we are, after all, talking about the bloodsport of beltway politics – it seems more than plausible that racism is one of the factors contributing to a racially disparate pursuit of ethics violations among lawmakers.


  1. No1KState

    I don’t understand how they’ve managed not to go after any white lawmaker. I mean, the CBC probably provides Pelosi with the most reliable votes for progressive policies.

    What’s going on? Is it really money?

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