Another disappointment from the Black Caucus

Posted: Jun 19, 2006 12:05 AM

The House of Representatives has voted to boot Louisiana Rep. William Jefferson off the Ways and Means Committee while he is being investigated on bribery charges. This immediately follows a vote by House Democrats recommending that such action be taken.

The way in which Jefferson has handled himself during this episode, and the support he has gotten from a number of his Black Caucus colleagues, is an embarrassment and demonstrates, once again, the sore need for a new kind of black leadership in Washington.

Jefferson should have taken the high road and voluntarily relinquished his committee seat. The fact that he didn't, the fact that the Congressional Black Caucus leadership supported his decision to resist Nancy Pelosi's request that he step aside, and the fact that the caucus chose to insert a racial dimension to these events, seriously undermines the credibility of black leadership.

For years now black political leaders have been using race to lower the bar and expectations for blacks rather than the opposite. In this latest episode, Jefferson and the Black Caucus leadership demonstrated that, again, they are willing to grasp for the race card to pull their own fat out of the fire, even if it means hurting their party and their black constituents.

It is true that Jefferson has not yet been formally indicted.

However, the case against him is compelling. ABC news reports that federal officials say his indictment should be expected sometime in July.

Jefferson is being investigated for taking bribes to promote telecommunications deals in West Africa. The FBI has him on tape accepting a $100,000 payoff, $90,000 of which they found stored in the freezer in his house.

Two men already have been convicted in the bribery investigation, one a former aide of Jefferson's, who has been sentenced to eight years in prison, and the other a businessman who has pleaded guilty to paying more than $400,000 in bribes to Jefferson.

To not see a high probability of wrong doing here on Jefferson's part reminds one of Groucho Marx's famous quips, "Who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes"

Sure, Nancy Pelosi is motivated by politics. The Democrats want to brand Republicans as the party of corruption and it weakens the case when you have crooks in your own party.

It's too bad, but unfortunately generally true, that if a politician actually does the right thing, it's probably for the wrong reasons. But, in this case, Pelosi clearly did the right thing by asking Jefferson to give up his seat on the Ways and Means Committee while he is being investigated.

The House Ways and Means Committee is one of the most powerful perches on which to sit in Washington. The Constitution requires that tax legislation be initiated in the House and Ways and Means is where the nation's tax legislation originates.

It doesn't push the imagination to think that we might not want a guy with $90,000 of bribe money sitting in his freezer on this committee.

However, a turn up the high road and stepping aside in the interest of nation, party, and constituents, even when the handwriting is on the wall, didn't tempt Jefferson.

The only Hail Mary left was to hunker down around claims that this was about race, and unfortunately, this is where Jefferson and the Black Caucus chose to go. Doing this served only to fan the flames of racial tensions and encourage destructive sentiments in the black community that come to no productive end.

Why, these black leaders have asked, has this unprecedented move, asking an unindicted member to step off a committee, occurred with a member of Congress who happens to be black?

But it is behavior, not race, that is operative here.

Jefferson also suddenly discovered his responsibility to his constituents in his efforts to salvage himself. He said they need him now on the Ways and Means Committee as hurricane ravaged New Orleans tries to rebuild.

But where has he been for the 16 years he has been representing them? An appalled nation watched during Katrina as cameras exposed the squalid realities of black life in New Orleans. Who looked for their black congressman to explain why the levees weren't improved and why crime and poverty had reached such hopeless levels in this community?

Mr. Jefferson was busy making deals in Africa, happy to sit quietly on the sidelines and let local problems be explained by racism.

Blacks have to stop tolerating this. Race must be transformed into a reason to demand more responsibility and set higher stands rather than the opposite, which is what we now get from our black leaders.

Let's hope the Jefferson incident goes beyond its particulars and provokes a new awareness in black America for the kind of leaders we really need.