It takes quite a bit of doing for the public punishment of a revered figure for unethical conduct to make an institution appear more unethical itself, but the U.S. House of Representatives was up to the challenge yesterday.
As expected, Rep. Charlie Rangel, former ly the powerful Chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, received a censure by majority vote, the harshest punishment a Member can receive short of expulsion. Rangel had been found guilty of five major ethical violations, or as they should properly be called, five instances of ongoing egregious unethical conduct. Charley and friends like to say “ethical violations” because that can be spun into mere carelessness, like not putting enough money on the meter. From the beginning, Rangel’s line has been that he made “mistakes,” suggesting they were either accidental or that he didn’t realize they were unethical. Think about that as you review the five:
Rangel accepted the use of several rent-stabilized apartments from a Manhattan real estate magnate at prices far below market. Was this accidental? No. Did the long-time House veteran have to know that accepting financial breaks by virtue of his position violated ethics rules? Does a woodchuck chuck wood?
Then it was revealed that Rangel neglected to pay taxes on rental income from a villa in the Dominican Republic and failed to report $600,000 in other assets on financial disclosure forms. Paying taxes and disclosing finances are well understood and longstanding obligations of House members, particularly a House member who oversees tax matters, like Rangel. Did he not know this? Of course he did. Are these “mistakes”? They are gross negligence, which is a willful and reckless failure of an obligation….unethical conduct, we call it.
Rangel used Congressional stationery and postage to raise funds for a City College school bearing his name. By no stretch of the imagination was this accidental, nor could he possibly not see the implications of his actions. During the debate over his censure, Rangel and his defenders kept repeating the claim that nothing Rangel did amounted to self-enrichment or personal gain. What? Public figures cherish their monuments and legacies, and often pay large sums to build both. Rangel used classic shakedown tactics to get others to pay: that is conduct in pursuit of personal gain. For a man like Rangel, a monument is worth more than money.
He also requested donations from companies and executives with business before Congress. “Oops”??? Can anyone really believe this was accidental? Rangel is a smart, savvy, lifetime politico, and for him, or anyone, to maintain that he engaged in such conduct without a complete understanding of its implications and exactly how unethical it was constitutes contempt for the intelligence of the American people.
The contempt should flow the other way, and include Rangel’s colleagues. After his absurd and disingenuous speech admitting the intentional, fully-understood “mistakes” just described, and making it clear that in his mind the real mistake was letting these come to the attention of the public, thus putting his colleagues in a “difficult position,” Rangel received copious applause and even a standing ovation from some members of the Congressional Black Caucus, who never have had a corrupt Caucus member that it didn’t argue was the victim of a plot or racism. A standing ovation for a Congressman about to be censured! This is a display every bit as disgraceful as a Congressman shouting “You lie!” at the President of the United States, and far more significant. It is not only Rangel who believes his corrupt conduct is trivial and should hardly be a blemish on his reputation, but many other Members as well.
The standing O for Rangel would have been earned if he had said something like this:
“I want to apologize to the House, my constituents and the American people for the actions that brought me here today. I have no excuse for my conduct, only an explanation. And the explanation is that I was arrogant and foolish, and allowed my many years in office to dull my senses of right and wrong. It happens. I have seen it many, many times in this body and elsewhere, and I believe that we, as representatives of the ideals and values of the greatest nation on earth, have tolerated such arrogance for far too long. As a result, we are too often seen by the public, and correctly so, as putting our own comfort, convenience and interests above those of the nation. This has contributed to the crisis of trust that now threatens the validity of our political process and system of government, which has served us so well in the past.
For these reasons, I not only accept the censure about to be pronounced, but welcome it. Not because I take the shame it carries lightly, for I do not: this is the saddest day of my professional career. I welcome it because if, by recognizing and condemning my misconduct, this body can begin to regain the public trust, and begin a new era that rejects petty corruption and arrogance, that aggressively prosecutes wrongdoing, and that aspires to the best of the democratic process rather than accepting its worst, then my pain, and my humiliation, will have served a worthy purpose. Finally, let me announce today that I will be leaving Congress after today as my self-imposed penalty for forgetting why I was sent here in the first place. I hope all of you, and the American public, can remember the best of my public service, and forgive the worst. Thank you.”
Yes, I would have stood for that. Rangel’s fellow House Members, however, stood to proclaim him a martyr.
Non-payment of taxes? No big deal. Accepting undisclosed financial favors? So what? Influence peddling?
“Everybody does it.” Indeed, everybody does it was the theme of the day, as defender after defender of Rangel stood to suggest that he was being singled out for punishment for conduct that has gone on every day, by many of the elected officials present, and that was unfair!
Not that Congress shouldn’t be doing these things….
Not that a powerful leader like Rangel should especially not be doing these things…
Not that it was a betrayal of trust for officials who have pledged to uphold the laws and who are charged with making the laws to do these things…
Not that the real disgrace was that so many other members of Congress had not been punished for doing these things in the past…
Not that Rangel’s censure could represent a significant statement by a corrupt body that it was committing itself to ethical conduct…
But that Rangle was unfairly being singled out. For “mistakes.”
“As a lawyer, I also respect precedent,” said Rep. John Tanner “I have searched this record and find no activity involving moral turpitude, or any activity that could be classified as one with criminal intent.” Yes, Rep. Tanner believes that a tradition of tolerating institutional corruption deserves respect. Why weren’t such matters as Rangel’s shaking down companies with business before Rangel’s committee for six and seven-figure donations evidence of criminal intent? Because Charley Rangel thinks this is the privilege of a Congressman, so in his eyes, it isn’t a crime, that’s why.
Oh. I guess we can expect the same from Rep. Tanner, then. Rep. Bobby Scott, meanwhile, had this to add:
“He knows he messed up,” Scott said. “He knows he will be punished. He just asks that he is punished like everyone else.”
Which would means, as Scott knows, no punishment at all. Scott also got the biggest laugh of the day by noting that the only House members who had ever been punished for not paying taxes were those who had failed to pay taxes on their bribes.
Har! Har! Ain’t that the truth! You tell ’em, Bobby!
Are you proud yet, America?
Republican Peter King of New York spoke in Rangel’s defense, saying, incredibly, that he had “never heard anyone question Charlie Rangel’s integrity.” This, if true, is the most frightening statement of this whole fiasco. In the U.S. House of Representatives, repeated conduct by a supposed exemplar of American democracy demonstrating defiance of the rules of Congress and the appearance of impropriety as well as the failure to meet his obligations as a citizen is thought be impeccable integrity!
After the final verdict of the House was delivered to Rangel in the well of the Chamber, Rangel—who had said he accepted full responsibility for his “mistakes” (but blamed his staff), who said he welcomed a full hearing on his case, but walked out of the actual trial when it arrived, saying that he hadn’t had time to prepare for it (ah, integrity!)—dismissed the action of his colleagues as just a “very, very, very political vote.” Translation: “They don’t really believe that what I did was so bad. They just have to pretend they do…you know, for the public and the media.”
And he’s probably right.