By Dana Milbank
Thursday, March 4, 2010; A02
It must have been a strange feeling for Charlie Rangel as he walked into Statuary Hall on Wednesday for fellow congressman Jack Murtha's memorial service. Murtha, who died three weeks ago, was being eulogized, but Rangel was the one getting buried.
Two hours earlier, Rangel, under pressure from Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), held a hastily announced news conference to say that he was giving up the chairmanship of the House Ways and Means Committee. The New York Democrat's fate had been sealed last week when the House ethics committee admonished him for unethical behavior while awarding Murtha a posthumous exoneration and clearing six other lawmakers of separate ethics violations.
Now, as he was led to his seat near the front, Rangel had to flash a smile, even though the man seated next to him, Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.), seemed to be studying the program to the point of memorization to avoid conversing with him. Rangel carried some reading material of his own: a binder labeled "CBR Report."
CBR: Central Bank of Russia? Comic Book Resources? Championship Bull Riding?
More likely, this stood for the "Charles B. Rangel" report. And on Wednesday, the CBR report was about as grim as it gets.
The 79-year-old lawmaker, who unseated Adam Clayton Powell Jr. in 1970, toiled for 37 years to earn the Ways and Means gavel. And now, so quickly, it was gone -- temporarily, Rangel insisted, but everybody knew it was for good. Tom DeLay and Bob Ney, tarnished in past scandals, also said they were giving up their leadership positions temporarily. Powell himself, who lost his chairmanship of the House Labor and Education Committee because of an ethics scandal in 1967, probably thought he was stepping down temporarily, too.
The list of charges against Harlem's representative is extensive. The ethics committee scolded him for taking corporate-funded trips to the Caribbean, but has not yet ruled on claims about Rangel's fundraising, his rent-controlled apartments, the taxes on his Dominican beach place, and even his storing of a vehicle without license plates in a House garage.
For months, Rangel had been vowing to keep his chairmanship. As recently as Tuesday night, he left a meeting with Pelosi and said "you bet your life" that he remains the chairman.
That wouldn't have been a good bet.
About 8:45 Wednesday morning, before the House opened for business, his office began to put out word that he would be in the House TV studio to make an announcement at 9 a.m. Most reporters, still at home, missed the event. Carl Hulse of the New York Times, who lives near the Capitol, dashed over in blue jeans and a hooded Florida State sweatshirt. Latecomers were out of luck, because Rangel's statement was 59 words.
He said he had requested a "leave of absence" to reduce the media attention and the need for colleagues "to defend me during their elections." Rangel, adorned with bow tie and pocket handkerchief, his suit pants hiked up high, then cordially asked the reporters to leave him alone. "I will not consider it rude if you insist on answering [sic] questions when I told you I won't answer," he said, "and I hope that you understand that I don't intend to be rude to you as I leave."
With that, he tried to leave. "I've got to get back to work," he said cheerfully. Reporters began to shout questions. With exaggerated warmth, the fallen chairman added: "I want you to have a great day."
Reporters did indeed have a great day of following him to a meeting of Ways and Means Committee Democrats, to a House Democratic caucus meeting and to a gathering of the Congressional Black Caucus in the Capitol basement. The CBC members applauded Rangel loudly, then came out of the room to defend him.
"Chairman Rangel is a great American," proclaimed Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.). "He'll be back in the chair, gaveling the action."
Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-Mo.) said it is the ethics committee that needs to be admonished. "The rulings that came out last week gave me great pause," he said. "You had some members treated one way, and another member like Mr. Rangel treated another way."
The ethics committee's rulings last week were indeed dubious, because they exonerated seven lawmakers who had directed no-bid government contracts to campaign donors under suspicious circumstances.
Everywhere Rangel looked, there were other signs of uneven standards. House leaders wanted him out as chairman but they proceeded to hand the Ways and Means gavel to Pete Stark (D-Calif.), who has had his own ethics run-ins and a foul mouth to boot, before rank-and-file committee members rebelled.
Even as he sat in Statuary Hall, Rangel could be reminded of the ethics enforcers' caprice: Five of those delivering tributes to Murtha had been through their own scrapes with the committee or other authorities, as had the deceased, and all but Rangel had been cleared.
The problem isn't that Rangel was punished, but that more aren't.