The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Friday, October 9, 2009

Wrangling with Rangel

The Congressman’s Violations Go Beyond Partisan Attacks and Demand Consequences

On Wednesday, Republican Representative John Carter of Texas took the floor to introduce a resolution condemning the Democratic chair of a powerful House committee for corruption and calling upon him to step down. There is nothing new in this; the minority Party routinely seeks opportunities to embarrass and hassle those in power. Back in the winter of their discontent, Democrats reliably brought attention to the ethical foibles of former Republican House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and demanded his ouster.

The thing about Wednesday’s condemnation that was so striking and made it so DeLay-like, as it were, was the rather impressive list of charges against the Democratic chair. Carter read aloud to the House for over thirteen minutes from nine sheets of paper before finally concluding, “Therefore, be it resolved that upon adoption of this resolution, Representative Charles Rangel of New York is hereby removed as Chairman of the Committee on Ways and Means.”

Democrats responded by moving to refer the matter to an ongoing investigation of Rangel by the House Ethics Committee and made it so with a 246-153 vote. They say the process is clearly working. Unless the process to which they are referring is the status quo, they are clearly wrong.

Carter and the Republicans are correct – Rangel needs to step down and, since Rangel is Rangel, this means Democrats need to force him to step down.

The charges against him are legion. Rangel stands accused of failing to disclose a half million dollars he holds in checking and investment accounts, benefiting from special mortgage terms that amount to a gift, failing to report hundreds of thousands of dollars in rental income, failing to pay taxes on a beach rental property in the Dominican Republic, living in multiple rent-subsidized apartments in New York City while claiming his Washington, D.C. home as his primary residence for tax purposes, using Congressional stationery to solicit donors for a public policy institute in his name at City College.

Wait, there’s more! The Washington Times and other papers have extensively documented campaign contributions Rangel received from the British concern Diageo, which stands to benefit to the tune of nearly $3 billion dollars from a deal Rangel supports allowing them to make rum in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Most recently, Rangel funneled a $3 million earmark in the massive Defense Appropriations Bill to his favorite institute of higher learning, New York City College.

And there’s still more but let’s not wait . . . you get the picture.

Rangel also got the picture sufficiently to ask for a probe of himself by the Ethics Committee in September 2008, once the first few charges started appearing against him. Its investigation has been moving along with maddening slowness until Representative Carter’s recent motion. On Thursday, the Committee said it was expanding its probe; this after has reviewing more than twelve thousand pages of documents, conducting thirty-four interviews and holding thirty hearings into Rangel’s alleged misdeeds.

For his part, Rangel insists all of his scandals are just honest mistakes and/or understandable errors “in complex financial disclosure and tax filings.” Nine pages of alleged violations suggest Rangel did indeed make mistakes but there was nothing honest about them.

Even the Congressional Black Caucus, of which Rangel is a co-founder and current member, agrees Republican charges against Rangel are not racism. It does think they are politically motivated, however. The day after Carter’s motion, the CBC sent a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi lambasting “partisan attempts” by Republicans “to ignore the well-established, bipartisan congressional ethics process . . . violate the core American principle of the presumption of innocence . . . [and] undermine the important work in Congress on healthcare reform.”

In truth, the attack is not even partisan. As Carter noted in his condemnation, Rangel’s actions have “held the House [as a whole] up to public ridicule.” Barack Obama won the Presidency promising to make government “more transparent and accountable.” Speaker Pelosi proclaims the current Congress “the most ethical and open one in history.”

The nature of the charges against Rangel is every bit as troubling as their sheer volume. Rangel has been the Chair of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee and Vice-Chair of the House/Senate Joint Committee on Taxation since January 2007. Rangel is not charged with an extramarital affair or speaking impoliticly to the President or attempting to hush up shooting his hunting buddy in the face; he is charged with failure to pay taxes and mismanaging his finances in general. It goes to the heart and the bottom line of his current job.

Rangel has been a Democratic fixture in the House for nearly forty years and therein may lay the root of the problem. Representing New York’s Fifteenth District, Rangel was first elected to Congress in 1970. He won re-election nineteen times, often with ninety percent or more of the vote. He is the most senior member of the New York delegation and the fourth most senior member of the House.

Rangel’s own personality, combined with this seeming electoral invincibility, makes for a volatile mix. His greatest strengths are often also his most dangerous weaknesses. He is candid, controversial, and feisty, so seeming to enjoy a fight that he will go out of his way to pick one. As his seniority grew, so did an already healthy sense of entitlement and his bank accounts.

Columnist Gail Collins, while admitting, “Rangel is my Congressman” and ceding him the title “Lion of Lenox Avenue,” sadly concludes it is “likely that he just feels he’s too important to be bothered with the rules.” Eugene Robinson concurs, saying the overall portrait of Rangel that comes across is “a wealthy and privileged Congressional pasha to whom ordinary rules don't apply.”

Back on August 31, the editorial board of the Buffalo News first called upon Rangel to resign his Ways and Means Chair. The Washington Post followed them on September 3. Today, the New York Times adds its voice to the swelling chorus, also condemning Speaker Pelosi for not forcing him to step aside.

The problem for Pelosi goes beyond potential Democratic embarrassment. In addition to money and ego, Rangel has also accumulated a lot of power in Congress over the past forty years. He is one of the kingmakers who supported Pelosi in her fight for Speaker. He may not be quite so easy for her to throw under a bus.

On the other hand, Pelosi bristled only yesterday at a press release from the National Republican Congressional Committee that criticized her for yielding to pressures from her liberal base opposing General McChyrstal’s request for more troops in Afghanistan. “Taxpayers can only hope McChrystal is able to put [Pelosi] in her place,” the press release concluded.

“I'm in my place,” Pelosi retorted angrily. “I'm the Speaker of the House, the first woman Speaker of the House. And I'm in my place because the House of Representatives voted me there.”

Back in January, Representative Carter of Texas offered up another resolution regarding Rangel, this one tongue-in-cheek. The Rangel Rule Act of 2009 (H.R. 735), proposed allowing all taxpayers to avoid paying penalties and interest on back taxes, in reference to Rangel having not yet paid his own at that time.

If Pelosi wishes to avoid Democratic promises to clean up corruption reduced to further laughingstock, she needs to stand up to Carter, Rangel, the CBC, the Republican leadership, and everyone else on this issue and act aggressively. She must pressure the Ethics Committee to complete its investigation quickly and then, based on its likely findings, show Charlie Rangel the door.

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