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Charles Rangel, Maxine Waters and the House culture of entitlement

By Ruth Marcus
Wednesday, August 4, 2010; A17

My favorite part of the ethics report on Charlie Rangel involves his efforts to "close" a $10 million gift "to create AIG Hall" as part of the Rangel Center at the City College of New York.

Yes, that AIG.

At a meeting in April 2008, the New York Democrat, then chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, "asked AIG, at least twice, what was necessary to get this done," according to the report. The insurance giant wasn't so sure about writing the check, citing the "potential headline risk."

When AIG -- the company that paid out hundreds of millions in bonuses after being rescued by a government bailout -- recognizes an appearance issue, you know you've got a problem.

Unless, that is, you're Charlie Rangel. Or, for that matter, Maxine Waters, the California Democrat who this week joined Rangel in being charged with ethics violations and in awaiting a public trial by the House ethics committee.

Which gets to my favorite part of the ethics report on Waters. Fast-forward a few months after Rangel's meeting with AIG, to the first weeks of September 2008. This was, to put it mildly, a rather busy time for then-Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson. The economy was tanking. Lehman Brothers was about to go down.

But when a senior member of the Financial Services Committee calls, the Treasury secretary tends to listen. Waters said she had "some people in town who were important to her," Paulson recalled, and asked for a meeting with Treasury officials to discuss their concerns.

How important to her? As Waters told the Office of Congressional Ethics, which conducted the preliminary investigation of her activities, "You don't use your chits for nothing. You call when there is an important issue."

The issue broadly involved the government takeover of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and its impact on minority-owned banks. But when Paulson's aides got to the meeting, they discovered that all but one of the banking industry participants were from one such institution: OneUnited.

On whose board Waters's husband had served until a few months earlier. In which he continued to have investments worth $500,000 to $1 million. A fact Waters somehow neglected to mention to Paulson -- although she was most certainly aware of it. As the report notes, Waters mentioned to Congressman A -- better known as Massachusetts Democrat Barney Frank -- that "Sydney's been on the board." Frank twice advised Waters to "stay out of it."

The obvious question is: What is wrong with these people? The tempting answer: They're members of Congress.

This may sound both harsh and glib. I'm certainly not suggesting that most lawmakers are as heedless of ethics rules as Rangel and Waters appear to have been -- although many members of the public appear disposed to believe so, and the seemingly endless stream of ethics revelations reinforces this misperception.

But there is something in the congressional atmosphere of compliant aides and fawning courtiers that enables and encourages their sense of ordinary-rules-don't-apply-to-me entitlement.

The longer they stay -- nearly 40 years in Rangel's case, going on 20 in Waters's -- and the safer their seats, the sloppier they tend to get, and the more there tends to be a unseemly merger of the personal and the official.

In Rangel's defense, his conduct appears less directly self-serving than Waters's. But to read the lengthy ethics report is to wonder how Rangel has refused to cop a plea -- especially when the recommended punishment took the relatively mild form of a reprimand.

Rangel failed to pay taxes on rental income from his Caribbean villa. He neglected to report $600,000 in income on his financial disclosure forms. He hit up companies with business before the Ways and Means Committee for donations as high as $30 million to the Rangel Center -- improperly using official letterhead and directly soliciting corporate lobbyists.

You might think he would be inclined to make it all go away as quickly as possible. But contrition does not come naturally to politicians, certainly not to Rangel. "If they're so confused after 18 months that they can't find anything, then that is a story," Rangel said in June. Several days earlier, Rangel had received the precise charges against him.

Speaking of the "very troubling" allegations against Rangel, President Obama told CBS News, "I'm sure that what he wants is to be able to end his career with dignity." It may be too late for that.

marcusr@washpost.com

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