A Washington scandal in perspective

Do the allegations of ethics violations against Reps. Charles Rangel and Maxine Waters measure up to all the media attention they've gotten?

WHEN TWO high-ranking, liberal African American members of Congress are the targeted in simultaneous ethics investigations, it's hard not to see this as only the latest phase in the right-wing attempt to whip up hysteria against Black faces in high places.

Columnist: Brian Jones

Brian Jones Brian Jones is a teacher, actor and activist in New York City. He is featured in the new film The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman, and his commentary and writing has appeared on MSNBC.com, the Huffington Post, GritTV and the International Socialist Review. Jones has also lent his voice to several audiobooks, including Howard Zinn's one-man play Marx in Soho, Wallace Shawn's Essays and Noam Chomsky's Hopes and Prospects.

Fox News host Greta Van Susteren mistakenly used a picture of Shirley Sherrod--the former U.S. Department of Agriculture official smeared by conservatives with a misleadingly edited video that attempted to portray her as "racist"--to illustrate a segment on the House Ethics Committee's investigation of Rep. Maxine Waters of California. Van Susteren called it a "doozy" of a mistake, but perhaps it was more a Freudian slip.

Rep. Charles Rangel of New York is also under investigation. For their parts, both Rangel and Waters have backed away from claims that these inquiries are about race.

This isn't surprising, given the virtual consensus across the political spectrum that too many Black people are cynically crying "racism" as a shield. Liberal funnyman Jon Stewart has had more than a few chuckles at Rangel's expense, even going so far as to produce a physical "race card," which read on the back, "Void during a Black presidency." By that logic--that racism can't operate while an African American sits in the Oval Office--Dr. Laura Schlessinger was well within her rights to spit an n-word-laden lecture at a Black woman who called into her show.

If you're reading, Mr. Stewart, here are four reasons why the "race card" isn't void in the Obama era: the Black-white wealth gap, inflated Black unemployment, African Americans disproportionately victimized by the prison-industrial complex and Blacks suffering the worst effects of the sub-prime mortgage meltdown.

Unfortunately, race is almost always a factor in American life and politics, regardless of whether or not Black people mention it.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

MOVEMENTS FIGHTING for social change shouldn't hesitate to hold those who claim to speak for them--like Waters and Rangel--to a higher standard than the run-of-the-million politician.

But it's still a fact that bears repeating: There is a tremendous and pervasive double standard at work in Washington, D.C. And yes, advocating for racial minorities--or just being a member of a minority group--is an easy way to find yourself in the crosshairs.

Shirley Sherrod was fired on a dime when a video was doctored to portray her as refusing to help a white farmer, but the white police officer who roughed up Black professor Henry Louis Gates in his own home got invited to the White House for a beer.

ACORN was barred from federal grants when it was "caught" offering advice to a fake pimp, but the mercenary army at Blackwater commits massacres and gets to keep millions in government contracts.

Does this mean that Black elected officials should be beyond reproach, criticism or censure? Of course not. But let's look at the charges.

Waters is accused of improperly setting up a meeting between a bank in which her husband owns stock--OneUnited--and Bush administration Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson to explore the bank's eligibility for the government's Wall Street bailout, known as the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP).

OneUnited is a Black-owned bank, and Waters maintains that she sought assistance for it and other minority-owned financial institutions that might not otherwise have been able to get access to TARP funds.

Yawn.

Let's not confuse a molehill for a mountain. Paulson, who sat across the table from Waters' chief of staff in that meeting, should be up on charges for robbing the taxpayers blind. In broad daylight, he used his position in the Treasury Department to make sure that the biggest banks--including Goldman Sachs, where he was CEO before jumping to Treasury Secretary--would be quickly restored to perfect financial health with no strings attached, using public money.

Rangel is in more trouble than Waters. When he was chair of the House Ways and Means Committee--he stepped down earlier this year--he was in charge of, among other things, helping to write the nation's tax codes. So it's hard to believe that he wasn't clear on what taxes he owed on income from renting a villa in the Dominican Republic.

Likewise, his claim to have received no special treatment as recipient of four rent-stabilized apartments rings hollow. Did he improperly use the apartments for state business? Did he send out fundraising letters for the construction of an honorary institution in his name on a Congressional letterhead?

If Rangel is found guilty of using his position to feather his own nest, then good riddance.

But let's be clear: all of the above is business as usual in Washington. The congressional ethics committee is currently investigating 16 current and seven former members of Congress.

Even more important to bear in mind: The biggest scandals of this year--by any normal person's standard of "ethics"--will never be investigated.

Who made sure that the new regulatory regime for Wall Street would be toothless? Wall Street's overwhelming lobby. According to Public Citizen, the financial industry spent $1 million a day fighting new regulations. Its hundreds-strong army of lobbyists includes 940 former federal government employees. The final legislation was co-authored by Sen. Christopher Dodd, who has five former staffers working as lobbyists for big banks.

All perfectly legal. But "ethical"?

And who wrote the rules for health care "reform"? According to Health Care for America Now, the insurance companies have spent nearly $800 million on lobbying since 2007.

Sen. Max Baucus, who orchestrated the writing of health care legislation in the Senate last year, was the top recipient of contributions (at $1.1 million) from the industry during the 2008 congressional elections. Baucus made sure that single-payer health care was off the table from the start, and that insurance and pharmaceutical companies would have a big role in shaping the legislation.

All perfectly legal. But "ethical"?

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

THE TEA-cup tempest over Waters' and Rangel's alleged ethics violations, however small bore, nevertheless should serve as a reminder that the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), despite its liberal bent, is knee-deep in the politics of influence-peddling.

Last February, a report in the New York Times highlighted the CBC's growing ability to raise cash for itself--funders include Wal-Mart, Coca-Cola, AT&T, Verizon and other large American companies.

All told, the CBC took in $55 million in corporate and union contributions from 2004 to 2008. In 2008, it spent as much on the caterer for a single event ($700,000) as it gave out in scholarships.

How does cash impact the politics of the CBC? Well, let's just say that it's unlikely that the CBC will ever play a leading role in the stopping the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan while its bread is being buttered by defense contractors like Lockheed Martin.

The Times article cites several examples of corporate influence, including "indirect" means, such as gift-giving to CBC-sponsored nonprofit organizations:

Some of the biggest donors also have seats on the second caucus nonprofit organization--one that can help their businesses. This group, the Congressional Black Caucus Political Education and Leadership Institute, drafts positions on issues before Congress, including health care and climate change.

This means, for example, that the lobbyists and executives from coal, nuclear and power giants like Peabody Energy and Entergy helped draft a report in the caucus' name that includes their positions on controversial issues. One policy document issued by the Black Caucus Institute last year asserted that the financial impact of climate-change legislation should be weighed before it is passed, a major industry stand.

Other examples of Corporate America's influence in the CBC are more direct:

Rep. Danny K. Davis, Democrat of Illinois, once backed legislation that would have severely curtailed the rent-to-own industry, criticized in urban districts like his on the West Side of Chicago. But Mr. Davis last year co-sponsored legislation supported by the stores after they led a well-financed campaign to sway the caucus, including a promise to provide computers to a jobs program in Chicago named for him. He denies any connection between the industry's generosity and his shift.

So where does that leave us?

With Black unemployment increasing four times faster than white unemployment during this recession, it's worth pointing out that the rise of a class of savvy, well-connected Black politicians has not corresponded to a rise in the fortunes of regular folks.

And that's the way the system works. Whatever their intentions, anyone who takes office in national politics becomes part of a machine that subordinates the interests of the working majority in favor of those of the wealthy minority. Liberal politicians--of whatever stripe--may continue to use radical-sounding rhetoric to maintain support from their base, but their actions are inevitably shaped by the system they serve.

It's hard not to agree with the bitter sentiment of Black Agenda Report's Bruce Dixon, who wrote last January:

The last two Congressional Black Caucus legislative summits have featured numerous workshops on how to do business with the Pentagon and Homeland Security, but next to none on how to make the antiwar, pro-peace sentiments of our communities heard in anything like their actual number. Black politics, and the Black elite that practices them, have become unmoored from democracy. Getting paid, and in some cases, getting elected are all that matters.

Can these Black politicians become the target of racists and right-wingers? Count on it.

Should we expect them to lead a real fight for jobs, health care and housing? Don't hold your breath.