Rangel’s Mercy Plea Theory: The Ethics Savings Account

As I write this, Rep. Charles Rangel is asking his colleagues for mercy, as they decide what his punishment should be for eleven counts of ethics misdeeds including abuse of his office and tax evasion. He has made the unconvincing argument that it all adds up to sloppiness, not corruption, though the sheer weight and breadth of the charges against him indicate otherwise. Rangel’s main defense, as he tried to stave off censure, was the testimony of Rep. John Lewis, a civil rights icon and compatriot of Martin Luther King, soon to receive a Presidential Medal of Freedom.  Lewis described Rangel as a “good and decent man, an honest man,” a Korean War vet who came to Selma, Ala. and marched alongside King and Lewis in the cause of civil rights, which Rangel, Lewis said, fought for his entire career.

Lewis’s character endorsement is completely irrelevant to Rangel’s current corruption issues. I don’t think it should be allowed.  By what logic does Rangel’s civil rights record and military service mitigate his breach of trust as an elected member of Congress? There is none. Rangel and Lewis are arguing the disreputable “ethics savings account” rationalization, in essence saying that if an individual accumulates enough good deed, he can use them later to offset the consequences of bad ones. If true, this would mean, ironically, that the more a public figure’s accomplishments and history of good works earns the public’s trust, the less trustworthy he is in fact, because he has all those accumulated ethics points in his career bank, and can cash them in at any time for self-enriching corruption. The more admirable he has been, the more ethical his deeds, the more unethical he can afford to be without fear of punishment.

Nonsense. Corrupting nonsense. Rangel and Lewis would have us believe what….that a record of civil rights support excuses tax evasion? That Congressmen who marched in Selma can get away with corrupt acts that younger, whiter Representatives cannot? That if a civil rights icon says that you are honest, the fact that your recent conduct has been dishonest should be ignored?

What they are arguing is what every prominent individual who was once respected, honored and trusted has argued when they are caught violating their own principles and betraying the public. “You owe me. I deserve a pass this time, and if you don’t let me off, you are ingrates. I earned mercy and forgiveness, and you have to balance what I have done against all the good I did.” It is a corrupting argument because it is so persuasive, yet it is unjust and manipulative. Rangel is as accountable for corruption as any freshman member, and his misconduct is more damaging because of his prominence, not less. A career of accumulated good deeds and admirable works can be fairly used to create trust, but must never be used to excuse the abuse of it.


6 thoughts on “Rangel’s Mercy Plea Theory: The Ethics Savings Account

  1. As it is, those on the committee that will (or so says the smart money) vote to censure Rangel will make sure that we all hear yet again of all his good works, yada, yada, yada. “So sad, we had to bust him back to mere member of Congress—such a terrible fate for such a good man.”
    OK, I’m ranting and need to get a better grip. Maybe you were right about me being cynical in a different posting.

  2. Since when do we rack up points being “good” s0 we have a savings account to be “bad” later? This is as ludicrous as the serial killer who, if he confesses all his sins on the way to the electric chair, will nevertheless find his way to heaven.

    I believe in redemption (sometimes), but Rangel’s behavior is the OPPOSITE of redemption. “I was good so now I can be bad. I supported honorable causes, so now I can spend my time supporting my own selfish causes.” (Instead, of course, the key to redemption: “I will use the time left to me to make up in some way for my previous bad acts.”)

    Surprise, Charlie, it doesn’t work both ways. And if you ask me, Rangle, Vernon Jordan, the Clintons, and a host of others (including evangelicals) manage most of the time to split their good and bad acts simultaneously, hoping against hope that their good acts will get more press than the bad ones.

    Rangle is finally caught red-handed. Good. All the supposed good things he did for his constituency and the civil right movement are meaningless at this point, no matter how much he professes to the contrary. (Leave out the fact that he remais one of the primary supporters of black “victimology” even in 2010.)

    Of course, it’s all complicated by the large percentage of his constituency who admire him for lining his own pockets and “sticking it to the white power structure.” But that’s another topic for Jack and a discussion of the continuing great divide…

    • Elizabeth, in many religions there’s nothing ludicrous about a confessed serial killer ending up in heaven. Confession alone is generally not sufficient, granted, but confession accompanied by remorse, contrition, etc. can indeed lead to redemption, theologically speaking. Legally speaking, now, that’s a whole different matter.

      • Contrition and redemption are among those things we have to believe in, even though 99% of the time they are just ways for the manipulative and corrupt to fool us again and again. I think it is sensible to have a high standards of proof for when contrition is sincere. When it really means “I am so sorry I was caught” (See Clinton, Bill), we should feel free to ignore it with a free conscience.)

        • Who’s being cynical now, Jack? Sorry, I couldn’t resist. I do agree with you, however. I spoke of redemption only from a believer’s point of view, where the manipulative and corrupt cannot ply their wiles, because the judge is perfect. We humans, however, don’t have that advantage. So, Charles Rangel may well gain admission to heaven when the time comes, but I agree that that cannot and should not be a factor in deciding how he should be dealt with on this side of the pearly gates.

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