Sunday, February 14, 2010

In Defense of the Congressional Black Caucus?

An article in today's New York Times depicts the Congressional Black Caucus as a "fund-raising powerhouse." I first saw the headline last night, when it appeared on the Times' website sometime in the evening. My initial reaction was puzzlement, yet also curiosity. How could this possibly be news?

My second reaction to all of this, to the lavish and opulent parties on the Potomac, large money contributions, and trips to a Mississippi Casino resort?

Long live the First Amendment.

That, of course, is a reference to the recent Citizens United case. The example of the CBC shows us democracy at its worst, with major corporations contributing inordinate amounts of money supporting their candidates of choice.

Here's the puzzlement: why is it news, and big news at that, for a caucus to receive contributions from major corporations? According to the headline, the corporations are seeking to buy influence, and the article describes instances when such influence leads to changes in policy on the part of caucus members. Thusly put, it sounds bad, slimy, even immoral. It might even run counter to our intuitions about how our democracy ought to work. But that cannot possibly be news. I would have thought this is true of Congress as a whole, which led to the passage of our campaign finance laws in the first place. So why the article?

One answer may be that we expect more form our black legislators, most of whom are elected from majority black districts. Under federal law, black voters must have the same opportunity as other voters to elect their candidates of choice, an opportunity that is largely afforded by these majority black districts. How to defend the creation of these districts if representatives elected from them are no different from members of Congress as a whole? Worse yet, voters within these districts often have no other choice than the incumbent representative.

In response, members of the Caucus say all the right things. "We're unbossed and unbought," says Rep. Barbara Lee, the chairwoman of the Caucus. Elsie Scott, chief executive of the CBC Foundation, acknowledges that the companies "are trying to get the attention of the C.B.C. members," yet she doesn't "think there is anything wrong with that." These companies simply want to deal with people in positions of influence. This is not to say that the caucus would turn on its constituents.

I was unmoved about all of this until I came to the last part of the article, which described the success of the rent-to-own industry within the caucus. According to the article, "few of these alliances have paid off like the caucus' connection to rent-to-own stores." The industry acknowledges as much. In an industry newsletter, the president of the rent-to-own association wrote that “[w]ithout the support of the C.B.C. . . . our mission in Washington would fail.”

This took me back to my first year of law school, when we were discussing the unconscionability doctrine and the Williams v. Walker-Thomas case. This was a case brought by a plaintiff against the Walker-Thomas Furniture Company for its predatory rent-to-own practices. The facts were pretty onerous. Plaintiff Williams had made purchases through the years totaling $1,800, and had made payments totaling $1400. She then defaulted on the contract, and the furniture store sought to repossess every item purchased by Ms. Williams, irrespective of how much money she had already paid. This was, according to the D.C. Circuit, unconscionable.

The day we discussed this case in law school remains clear on my mind. Some students argued the law, and how the economics of renting to own in poor and minority communities necessitates the Walker-Thomas repossession policy. It was either this policy, or else these poor and minority communities could not rent to own at all, because nobody would want to do business with them.

Some students, mostly students of color, responded just as vehemently against the policy. This is the part that sticks in my mind. One student in particular argued that this was outrageous and businesses would never get away with this outside minority communities. This was predatory, plain and simple. We were young and naive, to be sure, but we knew right from wrong.

Apparently, and shamefully, the CBC does not.