July 29 (Bloomberg) -- How could the canny Charlie Rangel let it come to this, chased by reporters from here to Harlem hammering him about what he’s going to do about allegations that he misused his office?
Suddenly everyone is mad at Rangel, the New York Democrat beloved within his party, for not making a deal. How could he be so stubborn? Why isn’t he making it all go away? Colleagues are returning money he raised for them and reconsidering whether to attend his 81st birthday bash. Members are fond of Rangel but fonder of re-election, which may hinge, at last, on ethics.
Rangel was lulled into his current predicament by counting on the House ethics committee to be its usual wimpy self. Traditionally, the committee is a path to avoid paying for transgressions.
The last time the committee ordered a trial was 2002, for Ohio Democrat James Traficant, known for his comical toupee, flamboyant style and flagrant abuse of the rules. He wound up in prison, convicted in 2002 of accepting bribes, evading taxes and forcing his staffers to give him kickbacks on their salaries. It says much about Traficant -- but also a little about the standing of Congress -- that after being released last year, he tried launching a bid to for his old seat.
Rangel’s misbehavior wasn’t close to Traficant’s. Rangel is accused of violating House rules, such as using official stationery for personal business, as he did to solicit donations for a center named after him at City College of New York.
When allegations emerged involving corporate-sponsored trips, his use of four rent-stabilized apartments in Manhattan and failure to pay taxes on rental income, Rangel, as so many before him, bought himself time by asking the committee to investigate.
Then a funny thing happened. The drag-it-out strategy carried the case right into midterm-election season. And the committee didn’t fold. Instead, Rangel now finds himself the poster child for Democrats doing what they said they would do -- end the culture of corruption -- before voters have their say in November. And unlike those before him, Rangel encountered resistance when he tried to bargain his troubles down to a teeny tiny misdemeanor.
Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Republican of Texas, was twice admonished by the ethics committee in 2004. But it wasn’t until 2006, while under indictment on charges of illegally using corporate donations in state races, that he resigned from Congress. He has never been tried on the charges, which he calls politically motivated, and was last seen spinning around in high-heel samba shoes on “Dancing with the Stars.”
Snooze on Rules
At least the ethics committee gave signs of being awake in the DeLay matter. By contrast, it slept through the rather amazing case of California Republican Representative Randy “Duke” Cunningham, who flagrantly ignored House rules. He was prosecuted and imprisoned for living on a yacht subsidized by defense contractors who also took his house, furnished with an expensive commode, off his hands at an inflated price.
If Democrats, in charge of the House since 2007, had proven themselves significantly more ethical than Republicans, Rangel would be better off. Instead, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who famously promised to “drain the swamp” -- the blue one as well as the red -- got off to a shaky start.
She protected her good friend, Pennsylvania Democrat John Murtha, who died before a raft of serious charges, including sending a defense contract to a company employing his nephew, could catch up to him. Shockingly, she tried to give Louisiana Democrat William Jefferson a seat on the Homeland Security Committee even after the release of photos of $90,000 in cash tucked inside containers of Pillsbury Pie Crust and Boca Burger in his house. He would later be convicted of 11 counts of racketeering and bribery.
Rangel suffered real punishment when he gave up his chairmanship of the Ways and Means Committee in March, and he has made other concessions. He acknowledged “bookkeeping” errors and put his staff to work getting straight his financial disclosures and paying taxes on rental incomes from his villa in the Dominican Republic.
He has his excuses on other charges, not the least of which is that everybody does it:
Other members were also on the corporate-sponsored trip to the Caribbean, and his staff handled his paperwork. He would have supported preserving a tax loophole for oil driller Nabors Industries even if its chief executive hadn’t contributed $1 million to the Charles B. Rangel Public Service Center at City College. As for having to report the savings from a rent-stabilized apartment, since when is gaming the high rents in Manhattan a reportable gift?
Need for Scalp
This might have worked before Congress sunk to its 11 percent approval rating in the run-up to what will be a brutal election for incumbents. Democrats need a scalp to prove they’re different from Republicans, that the culture of corruption has stopped with them, that members will play by the rules or else.
At times defiant, snapping at reporters to get their facts straight, and at other times admitting the whole thing has been “traumatic,” Rangel still labors under the old regime, when friends didn’t judge friends lest they be judged.
I say sacrifice Rangel if it means entering a true age of accountability, in which all similar transgressions are similarly punished. But not if this is just election-year posturing.
This looks like situational ethics, the situation being that Republicans are licking their chops at the prospect of another minor hand-slap for ethical transgressions. In hopes of saving the many, Pelosi is willing to give up the one.
(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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