Charlie Rangel's censure, House's disgrace

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi formally calls Rep. Rangel to the well of House to be informed of the censure. Rangel closed the proceeding with a one-minute address on the House floor.
By Dana Milbank
Saturday, December 4, 2010; 12:00 AM

Charlie Rangel stood, stony-faced, in the well of the House. His feet planted wide, his hands crossed over his fly, the 80-year-old lawmaker awaited the rebuke of his peers.

On Thursday evening, for the first time in 27 years, the speaker read aloud the resolution of reproach. "By its adoption of House Resolution 1737, the House is resolved that representative Charles Rangel of New York be censured," Nancy Pelosi read, calling on the fallen chairman of the Ways and Means committee to pay the taxes he owes. Rangel, staring back at the speaker, swallowed hard.

After the ritual of public humiliation, the Harlem Democrat's friends came with outstretched arms to console him, but Rangel brushed them off, instead requesting permission to address the House.

The disgraced lawmaker, defiant even in his moment of shame, scolded his accusers for treating him worse than "those that in the past have done far more harm to the reputation of this body than I."

Rangel then went downstairs to offer more defiance at a news conference. "I leave here knowing that everyone knows I'm an honest guy," he proclaimed, accusing his colleagues of a "very, very, very political vote." The freshly censured legislator even offered a suggestion for newspaper headlines: "Rangel found not guilty of corruption and self dealing."

Sorry, Charlie: That's not going to happen. But if it's any consolation, Rangel should know that however harmed he was by the censure, the entity that was really disgraced was Congress itself. This is because Rangel's two-year battle with the House ethics committee exposed the woeful state of lawmakers' abilities to police their own.

The rules governing members' behavior were proven to be so lax as to be irrelevant. The vast majority of transgressors are never punished - Rangel was only because he himself asked the ethics committee to investigate some of the allegations against him.

To be sure, Rangel deserved punishment for his wrongs, which included failing to pay taxes on his Dominican beach home and improperly using his office for charitable fundraising. But in the 30 minutes allotted to him for his defense on the House floor Thursday evening, Rangel and his friends made a compelling case that he was being punished for doing things that lawmakers do routinely.

"The only examples of anybody sanctioned for tax matters in this House in the history of the United States have been those who didn't pay taxes on bribes they received," argued Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), in Rangel's defense. Several members had a chuckle over their laxity.

"Far more serious ethical lapses than Mr. Rangel's have not met with censure," seconded Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.).

And Rep. Peter King (N.Y.), one of the only Republicans to oppose censure for Rangel, implored his colleagues to "step back" and reconsider. "Let us apply the same standard of justice to Charlie Rangel that has been applied to everyone else, and that all of us would want applied to ourselves."

Which is to say: a very lenient standard.

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