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

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.

But if the House votes to censure him, Rangel would be forced to take part in a brief but powerful ritual of personal humiliation.

He would have to walk to the front of the House chamber, to the "well" where members typically stand to speak. Then, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) would read aloud a one-paragraph resolution of censure. That would last about 30 seconds.

Then Rangel would be free to go. (Such cases have not always resulted in easy departures. In 1921, after hearing his own censure, Rep. Thomas L. Blanton (D-Tex.) fled the House chamber and collapsed, striking his head on the marble floor in a Capitol corridor.)

No matter the outcome, the vote will be a rare moment in Washington.

About 11,000 people have served in the House since 1789, but only 35 have been punished by a vote of their colleagues. The full Senate has punished 24 members.

It's not that Congress is filled with a bunch of saints; it's that most members under investigation have resigned, retired or lost reelection bids before their cases came to a vote.

Twenty-two House members have been censured. Their violations have included bribery, assaulting other members and sexual misconduct.

Rangel's argument is that he does not deserve to be lumped in with that lot.

"Rep. Rangel has not been convicted with any crime," his staffers wrote in a memo that has been circulated to other legislators. "In the past, the ethics committee has recommended a reprimand [instead of censure] in matters where a member has failed to submit accurate financial disclosure statements, or intentionally failed to disclose gifts or donations."

Rangel will ask the House to add him to the list of nine members who have been given reprimands. One, Charles H. Wilson (D-Calif.), had the distinction of being given both a reprimand (1978) and a censure (1980).

The reprimand, first used in 1976, has typically been handed out for lesser offenses. The most recent one, according to the Congressional Research Service, was handed in September 2009 to Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) for shouting "You lie!" at President Obama during the president's speech to a joint session of Congress.

Reps. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) and Jo Bonner (R-Ala.), chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the ethics committee, said that Rangel's position as Ways and Means chairman meant he ought to be held to a higher standard.

"The committee concluded that the 11 violations committed by Representative Rangel on a continuous and prolonged basis were more serious in character, meriting a strong congressional response rebuking his behavior," Lofgren and Bonner wrote in a committee report.

The ritual of censure takes its power from the contrast between the words and the place, said Melanie Sloan, with the group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

In the House chamber, she said, "you're supposed to avoid even offensive words or any effort to cause anybody offense on the floor. And this in many ways is the opposite of that."

She said she hoped that Rangel would resign before facing such a punishment. "It's intended to cause the member humiliation and embarrassment. That's the very point of the exercise," Sloan said.

Rangel remains popular in his district. Constituents reelected him for a 21st term this month with 80 percent of the vote. And, despite their power to scare, historians say that neither censure nor reprimand is an automatic political death sentence. The last three House members reprimanded are still in politics - current members Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and Wilson, and former member Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.).

The last two House members to be censured were Daniel B. Crane (R-Ill.) and Gerry E. Studds (D-Mass.), each disciplined in 1983 for having sex with teenage House pages in separate incidents.

Crane lost reelection and returned to his dental practice in Illinois. Studds was reelected and served until 1997.

"You can't really say, 'This is what happens after . . . you're censured,' " said John Lapinski, a political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania. "We only have so many cases to look at. And so many of them are from so long ago."

fahrenthold@washpost.com kanep@washpost.com

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