Let me say up front that in the case of Representative William Jefferson, D-LA, I am in solid agreement with Nancy Pelosi (not always a given): he ought to step down from the Ways and Means committee until his guilt or innocence is established. The principle here is very old: "Caesar's wife must be above suspicion." The members of Congress would get a whole lot more respect from their constituents, and the country in general, if they realized that they are in the position of Caesar's wife: it isn't enough for them to be innocent of wrongdoing. They must appear to be innocent of wrongdoing. For a public figure the appearance of venality is almost as bad as venality itself.
Mr. Jefferson has offered three arguments for staying on the committee: he's innocent; Louisiana needs the help he can give it while a committee member; and he's being picked on because he's black.
Since Mr. Jefferson hasn't yet been tried or even indicted, he is, of course, assumed to be innocent; but some very peculiar allegations have been published about him, and the Justice Department feels it has grounds for indictment. Not to mention that two of his former associates have pleaded guilty to bribing him. If Congressmen, like Caesar's wife, should be above suspicion, he's clearly failed that test. I've said before that I thought he had some explaining to do.
Louisiana certainly needs all the help it can get. But I have some reservations about how much it needs Mr. Jefferson's help.
I hardly know how to approach the suggestion, made by Mr. Jefferson and supported by the Congressional Black Caucus, that he's being victimized because he's black, because no white Congress members have been asked to step down from their committees. There certainly are white Republican members of Congress who, if this principle were equitably applied, should resign their committee seats; but Nancy Pelosi has no authority over Republicans, and I haven't seen any news articles about any other Democrats in just this equivocal position. In fact, Ms. Pelosi's point, which Mr. Jefferson appears to miss entirely, is that Democrats ought to hold themselves to a higher ethical standard than the Republican "culture of corruption."
Does the Black Caucus really believe African Americans ought to be immune from the consequences of their behavior, because their ancestors were forced into slavery? Does the Black Caucus really think that African Americans don't want their elected African American representatives to be held responsible, if they act as Mr. Jefferson appears to have acted?
The Republican Party leadership has spent the last few years disgusting the electorate with its corrupt and arrogant behavior. One of the strongest arguments the Democrats can make in the fall elections, if they can pull it off, is that they are honest public servants. Mr. Jefferson seems to feel that his personal privilege is more important than his party's advantage.