By George Derek Musgrove, a professor of history at the University of the District of Columbia
In 2008 Speaker Nancy Pelosi created the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) to make good on her promise to “drain the swamp” and better police the ethics of Congress. The House of Representatives 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.
At first blush the OCE, which investigates complaints of unethical behavior against members of Congress and refers them to the House Ethics Committee, appears to have been a success. It has been exceedingly active over the course of the past three years, investigating 34 cases and keeping the Ethics Committee busy with a string of referrals.
But with the return of a robust ethics process has come a return of the ethics wars. Sadly, few on Capitol Hill have acknowledged this development, at least in part, because it has primarily affected black members of Congress.
Of the 34 cases handled by the OCE, ten have involved black members and one additional case has involved the black chief of staff for Rep. John Lewis (D-GA). Thus black members, who account for 10 percent of the House of Representatives, have been the subjects of 30 percent of the cases handled by OCE. This has led to some eye-popping developments before the Ethics Committee. At one point in 2010 all of the full cases before the Committee involved black members, and today a majority of the cases before that body involve blacks.
What is to account for this disparity?
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 thirty years have had a disproportionate effect on black elected officials.