Some CBC Members Secretly Trying to Oust Jefferson from Committee Post
By: Hazel Trice Edney
NNPA Washington Correspondent
Originally posted 6/13/2006
WASHINGTON (NNPA) – Although the Congressional Black Caucus has publicly presented a united front in its support of embattled U. S. Rep. Bill Jefferson’s right to maintain his committee memberships, some CBC members – including civil rights icon John Lewis (D-Ga.) – have assumed behind-the-scene roles in getting Jefferson ousted from his coveted position on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee.
“Mr. [Mel] Watt certainly ably and with great distinction, speaks for the Congressional Black Caucus,” says House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who spearheaded the movement to force Jefferson from the committee after he refused to voluntarily step down.
“But, quite frankly, a number of members of the Black Caucus have given me moral support on this.”
Some have provided more than that.
Among Pelosi’s chief allies in the attempted ousting is Congressman John Lewis (D-Ga.) sources have confirmed.
In a closed door meeting of the 50-member Democratic Caucus Steering Committee last Thursday, sources say that Lewis made the motion to have Jefferson stripped from his seat on the House Ways and Means, which has oversight on key fiscal matters, such as tax hikes, the minimum wage and military spending.
Because the session was private, some of those present agreed to discuss the meeting with the NNPA News Service on condition that they be granted anonymity.
The sources say former CBC Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) also spoke against Jefferson in the committee meeting.
In addition, they said, Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-NY), ranking member on the Ways and Means Committee, accepted an earlier assignment from Pelosi to try to talk Jefferson into stepping down on his own, an overture rejected by Jefferson.
Ironically, Rangel first won his seat in the House when he defeated the late U. S. Rep. Adam Clayton Powell, who was under fire for alleged financial improprieties.
The House leadership had stripped Powell of his powerful Education and Labor Committee chairmanship and Rangel defeated him in the 1970 Democratic Primary.
Lewis’ motion, seconded by Pelosi, passed by secret ballot.
The motion stated: “The Committee moves that Congressman William Jefferson's appointment to the Committee on Ways & Means be suspended, with his seniority intact, until such time as a further recommendation to restore him to the Committee is made by the Steering and Policy Committee under the rules of the Democratic Caucus.”
The entire 201-member caucus was set to vote on the issue June 15. If the Caucus passes the motion for the removal of Jefferson, the action will be taken to the floor for a full House vote.
Through their spokespersons, Lewis, Johnson and Rangel all declined to comment.
Conceding that some members have obviously defected, CBC Chairman Mel Watt (D-N.C.) vehemently defended the firmness of the CBC’s position after the FBI raided Jefferson’s congressional office two weeks ago, the first time in the nation’s history that the executive branch has raided a legislative office.
“I think she is trying to refocus this,” Watt says, referring to Pelosi.
“This is for her, I guess - since we’re out here - this is about divide and conquer, as it always is, rather than about the substance of what is being proposed. And you know, I’m trying to talk about the substance of what they’re proposing to do and the truth of the matter is there is no precedent for that.”
Watt continues, “We are neither condoning, nor forgiving anything. All we’re trying to do is have a consistent set of rules that will apply to everybody so that we can go home and articulate what the standards are. I’d be just as concerned if he was a non-CBC member.”
Democrats have much at stake this election year. To win at least 15 House seats, a simple majority, could mean historic committee chairmanships for several members of the CBC, including Rangel, who would likely chair Ways and Means.
Jefferson says the eagerness for that power is one of the reasons behind the move to oust him.
“Nancy is overcome by this desire to be speaker so much until she’s getting close to losing her soul over these matters,” Jefferson says in an interview with the NNPA News Service.
“Whatever she thinks is going to help to get there, she’s just stepping over it to get there.”
Pelosi insists that her only motive is to uphold high ethical standards for the House.
She says she has joined in Jefferson’s federal suit requesting his papers back from the FBI. President Bush has temporarily sealed the documents.
But Jefferson says the only fair way to oust him from the committee would be if the House would conduct its own investigation and find wrongdoing.
“There’s been no investigation by the House or by Nancy. She’s basing her conclusions on news reports and collected pieces of information. We have an ethics process around here that should be under way that could take testimony and look at issues that decide them according to ethical rules and due process,” Jefferson explains.
“That’s what you would expect of the highest deliberative body in the world. That’s certainly what you would expect from Democrats who always tout themselves as the champions of fairness and non-discrimination.”
For Pelosi and some others, the evidence reported by the FBI appears to be damaging enough, including admissions by former staff and business associates that they assisted in bribing the Congressman and $90,000 in marked bills found in his home freezer.
“Giving him the benefit of the doubt for a long time, our Caucus had chosen not to take any action,” Pelosi says.
“Then, it became clear that perhaps for temporary arrangements anyway, Mr. Jefferson should step off the Ways and Means Committee, deal with his issues, then come back with his full seniority in tack. Every step of the way we were trying to be protective of Mr. Jefferson’s rights.”
Watt is not persuaded.
“We need a standard. That’s what this is about. It’s not about whether Bill Jefferson is guilty or innocent. It’s about the fact that there is no historic precedent,” he says.
“There is no existing rule in fairness regarding a consistent rule that everybody knows will be applied to everybody in the same circumstance…If you don’t have that, then the majority will always make up the rules as they go along.”