Rangel hopes punishment will come in writing rather than on House floor

Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) acknowledges that he has made mistakes but insists that he is not corrupt. The House voted Thursday to censure the congressman.
By David A. Fahrenthold and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, November 30, 2010; 12:34 AM

In the curious annals of congressional drama, this week's debate on the fate of New York Rep. Charles B. Rangel will be odder than most. The House will agonize, and Rangel will emote, over this question:

Will Rangel - who has been found guilty of 11 ethics violations - be scolded in person, or will he be scolded in writing?

That's all. The first option is called a censure. The second, which Rangel (D) very much prefers, is a reprimand. Neither would kick Rangel out of Congress, dock his pay, take away his right to vote - or in any other way prevent him from being the exact same congressman he is today.

So why does it matter? The reason has to do with the way congressmen view themselves: In an era when politicians routinely compare their opponents to Hitler, socialists and Dr. Kevorkian, the House still sees its chamber as an island of 19th-century decorum.

It is a place, at least in theory, where an old-fashioned scolding still carries an awful sting.

"Even in this age where politics has become so polarized and nationalized, Congress is still in many ways a small community. Censure really is shaming, just like shaming in any small community," said Charles Stewart III, a political science professor at MIT. "If you're somebody like Rangel, who has made a career mastering that place, to be basically stripped naked and scolded, that really is a traumatic thing."

That much became clear this month when a House ethics panel considered Rangel's case. The congressman walked out in protest and later made tearful appeals, asking colleagues to remember that he was not a crook.

"I thank you for this awkward opportunity to express myself. And I apologize for any embarrassment I've caused you individually or collectively as a member of the greatest institution in the country and the world," Rangel, 80, told the House ethics committee Nov. 18, just before members voted on his fate.

Nonetheless, the committee recommended censure. Members found that Rangel had improperly used his congressional staff and official letterhead to solicit donations from corporate charities and chief executives for a college wing named in his honor at City College of New York.

The ethics committee also found that Rangel, onetime chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, did not pay taxes on a villa he owns in the Dominican Republic and did not properly disclose hundreds of thousands of dollars in personal financial assets. Additionally, it found that Rangel violated New York City rules by housing his political committees in rent-controlled apartments in Harlem.

Now, the full House is set to vote, perhaps Tuesday. The procedure will be simple: Rangel will have a chance to speak in his defense, and then members will vote.

If the House decides on a reprimand, then the written reproof would be placed in the congressional record.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company