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The Congressional Black Caucus And Their Lobbyist-Funded Galas

The New York Times printed an exposé of the Congressional Black Caucus that needs to be read. Basically, their foundation sucks up corporate money, which would be news to constituents back home.

It has a traditional political fund-raising arm subject to federal rules. But it also has a network of nonprofit groups and charities that allow it to collect unlimited amounts of money from corporations and labor unions.

From 2004 to 2008, the Congressional Black Caucus’s political and charitable wings took in at least $55 million in corporate and union contributions, according to an analysis by The New York Times, an impressive amount even by the standards of a Washington awash in cash. Only $1 million of that went to the caucus’s political action committee; the rest poured into the largely unregulated nonprofit network. (Data for 2009 is not available.)

The caucus says its nonprofit groups are intended to help disadvantaged African-Americans by providing scholarships and internships to students, researching policy and holding seminars on topics like healthy living.

But the bulk of the money has been spent on elaborate conventions that have become a high point of the Washington social season, as well as the headquarters building, golf outings by members of Congress and an annual visit to a Mississippi casino resort.

The CBC takes money from virtually everyone, sometimes from destructive corporate actors within black communities. It’s almost impossible to separate the influence of this foundation giving on the members of the CBC. Executives and lobbyists litter the Foundation’s board. Occasionally, this manifests itself in bad policy, on net neutrality for example, where members of Congress representing low-income black districts should be among the loudest calling for nondiscrimination of content and local control.

Most members of the CBC are from safe districts, and they don’t have to look over their shoulder in what could easily become career positions. They accrue a degree of power in Washington without the usual strings of accountability, and this can breed corruption. Donna Edwards’ victory over a corporate stooge named Al Wynn provided at least a small check on that power, and I’d like to think that the ascension of Barbara Lee, a former Progressive Caucus co-chair, to the chair of the CBC will lead it in a direction toward reform. But this account of their 2009 gala doesn’t fill me with hope:

The biggest caucus event of the year is held each September in Washington.

The 2009 event began with a rooftop party at the new W Hotel, with the names of the biggest sponsors, the pharmaceutical companies Amgen and Eli Lilly, beamed in giant letters onto the walls, next to the logo of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. A separate dinner party and ceremony, sponsored by Disney at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, featured the jazz pianist Marcus Johnson.

The next night, AT&T sponsored a dinner reception at the Willard InterContinental Washington, honoring Representative Bobby L. Rush, Democrat of Illinois and chairman of the House subcommittee that oversees consumer protection issues.

The Southern Company, the dominant electric utility in four Southeastern states, spent more than $300,000 to host an awards ceremony the next night honoring Ms. Lee, the black caucus chairwoman, with Shaun Robinson, a TV personality from “Access Hollywood,” as a co-host. The bill for limousine services — paid by Southern — exceeded $11,000.

Maybe national exposure of what has been an open secret in Washington can lead to tamping down what appears to be an open skirting of campaign finance laws. Certainly this article provides enough ammunition for a young reformer to take on any CBC member in a campaign. But those are longshots, and unfortunately we must rely on the abilities of individual members to clean up the CBC.

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David Dayen

David Dayen

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