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A questionable history

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A questionable history
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A questionable history

A valued Christmas present for Maxine Waters would be the dismissal of the charges against her before the House Ethics Committee. Since 1990 Waters has aggressively represented her Los Angeles congressional district. But Waters’ battle is a boon for us all. While she has won the strong support of her constituents, Waters’ liberal positions have aggravated others.

Waters was charged with a violation of House rules because her office arranged for the National Bankers Association to meet with Henry Paulson, former Secretary of the Treasury, to seek relief for minority banks that had lost funds with the federal seizure of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. According to the Ethics Committee, the offense occurred because Waters’ husband was a stockholder in one of those institutions, OneUnited Bank. Therefore, Waters had an alleged unauthorized beneficial interest.

The trial was first scheduled for Nov. 29, but on Nov. 19 it was indefinitely postponed. The public received no satisfactory reason for the suspension. However, people are concerned about the quality of the investigation since the Ethics Committee’s two lawyers, C. Morgan Kim and Stacy Sovereign have also been suspended.

Critics of the probe have questioned its legitimacy because investigators will have to establish “improper influence” by Waters. Simply arranging for a meeting with Paulson does not rise to that level.

The apparent flimsiness of the ethics case against Waters provokes an unpleasant stirring among those old enough to remember Congress’ abuse of Adam Clayton Powell Jr. In fact, the whole concept of an ethics committee was developed to find a way to ride him out of office.

Powell was elected to Congress from New York in 1944. The only other black congressman was William Dawson from Chicago. At that time, the chairmanship of House committees was determined solely by seniority, so in 1961 Powell became chairman of the Education and Labor Committee. In that post, he presided over minimum wage, equal pay for women, expanding minimum wage to retail employees, Medicaid and federal education issues.

Always a lightning rod, Powell integrated the segregated congressional lunch room. His flamboyant style helped induce an ethics investigation, and in January 1967 House Democrats stripped Powell of his chairmanship and the House voted 307 to 116 on March 1 to refuse to seat Powell.

Not to be outdone, Powell won the special election to fill his vacant seat, but he did not take the seat. Powell was again elected in the November 1968 election, and on Jan. 3, 1969, he was seated as a member of the 91st Congress, but he was fined $25,000 and denied seniority.

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Powell v. McCormack that the House had acted unconstitutionally to exclude an elected member. The Ethics Committee had found that Powell had abused his committee budget for personal travel, even though members of his committee had spent even more.

Fortunately, circumstances for African Americans in Congress have improved since then. Nonetheless, ethics investigations seem to be politically motivated. Tom Delay, the former Republican majority leader, was indicted by a grand jury in Texas in 2005 and escaped investigation by the House Ethics Committee. Delay left office in 2006, and he was convicted on Nov. 24, 2010. Waters’ conduct, even if the allegation is true, is trivial by comparison.

Waters’ refusal to accept a meaningless slap on the wrist has exposed the flaws in the Ethics Committee’s procedures. The Committee should now be less effective as a tool for fighting ethnic and political battles. That will be a valued present for us all.