Rangel, Bunning Drag Congress Close to Bottom: Margaret Carlson

You be the judge: Which was a worse example of the U.S. Congress at work this week?

Was it Senator Jim Bunning, Republican of Kentucky, launching a one-man crusade against extending unemployment and health-insurance benefits while whining about missing a college basketball game? During the five days of infamy, he shouted at reporters from inside a senators-only elevator and flipped his middle finger to onlookers.

Or was it Congressman Charles Rangel, Democrat from New York City and chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee? The House ethics committee slapped his wrist for accepting a corporate-sponsored trip, which was enough to prompt Jon Stewart, among others, to resurrect a photo of him flopped on a lounge chair on a sandy beach, surely one of the most unflattering pictures of a lawmaker captured in recent times.

It’s a tough call.

Bunning’s stunt added pain to the lives of the jobless, furloughed workers building roads and threatened the game his colleagues are playing. The Republican caucus is pretty pleased with its more elegant mode of resistance and doesn’t want the public to see obstructionism for what it really is, played out on C-Span.

Yet Rangel is a walking, vacationing example of the entitled behavior that sickens voters.

In the wake of the 2007 Jack Abramoff scandal, Congress tried to show it could police itself by adopting rules such as banning corporations that employ lobbyists from paying for any trip lasting more than one day.

‘Prime Access’

In the Rangel case, the letter soliciting corporations to kick in for expenses for the multiday trip explicitly promised “prime access to key elected officials” for their money by way of a private reception, good seating at meals, “photo opportunities, etc.”

Even without the “et cetera,” Rangel ran afoul of the rule by going. So, of course, he blamed his staff, claiming he didn’t know who paid for the trip.

What Rangel must have known was that he didn’t pay. Did he wonder about the identity of those sharks circling him in bright resort wear, sipping pina coladas, as they enjoyed the “prime access” they’d paid for? The trip smelled bad before it began. Organizers had sent Rangel a letter during the planning saying they were worried that HSBC and AT&T might not pony up because they were worried word of the trip might get out and they’d get slammed in the press for funding it.

Speed of Sludge

Flying off to a warm climate during winter isn’t Rangel’s only problem -- it’s just the one the ethics committee, moving at the speed of sludge, has found time to admonish him for. There might be an explanation for the panel’s slowness in getting to Rangel’s other questionable trips, a $1 million contribution from a wealthy businessman who later got a tax break, and not reporting rental income from a vacation villa he owns in the Dominican Republic. Three of the five Democrats on the bipartisan committee got donations from Rangel. One of them went along with him on the island junket in question.

It took only two work days for Maine Republican Senator Susan Collins, speaking for most of the Republican caucus, to isolate Bunning and force him to stop his obstructionist tactic. It’s taken the Democrats far longer to remove Rangel from his privileged position.

That’s partly because Rangel is beloved and Bunning is not. In fact, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell successfully pressured Bunning not to run for a third term. Bunning was so mad the GOP had hurt his fundraising, he threatened to sue it.

Bad Temper

In a body of crotchety old men, Bunning is the crotchetiest. He said his Italian-American opponent in his last race looked like one of Saddam Hussein’s sons. After beating the so-called Uday, he didn’t show up in the Senate for the first month, off on the Appalachian Trail for all anyone ever knew. In a speech last year, Bunning said conservatives soon would occupy a majority of Supreme Court seats because Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg would die within nine months from “bad cancer, the kind that you don’t get better from.”

While Bunning gets little love, Democrats closed ranks around Rangel last fall, defeating a GOP resolution to strip him of his powerful committee chairmanship. Republicans argued that the country’s chief tax writer shouldn’t get away with ignoring rules he’d written. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who vowed to have the most ethical Congress in history, made the false distinction that Rangel’s conduct was only a “violation of the rules of the House, not something that jeopardized our country in any way.”

But yesterday, as Republicans called for a vote on a similar resolution, Democrats, in fear for their seats, were set to vote against Rangel. In a brief announcement, Rangel agreed to give up his gavel “temporarily.”

Another Problem

Another excuse Democrats gave for not acting sooner was that they didn’t want Congressman Pete Stark of California, tax-challenged himself, to take over Ways and Means. He got “extremely belligerent,” according to ethics investigators, when questioned about his attempt to get a homestead tax exemption in Maryland when his official residence is in California.

If Pelosi hopes to keep a Democratic majority, she better get busy cleaning the swamp she promised to drain. On Tuesday night, Washington got another smackdown. Texas Governor Rick Perry walloped Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison by 21 points in the state’s Republican primary for governor. Hutchison, who had the Bush family and Dick Cheney supporting her, once had a commanding lead in polls.

There was only one reason she lost: voters might dislike the capitol in Austin, but they hate the one in Washington.

(Margaret Carlson, author of “Anyone Can Grow Up: How George Bush and I Made It to the White House” and former White House correspondent for Time magazine, is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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