As Rangel demonstrates, shame no longer required after political wrongdoing

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 David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 4, 2010; 9:57 PM

In Washington, shame isn't what it used to be.

That was the lesson of the showdown Thursday between Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) and the rest of the House of Representatives. Rangel's colleagues voted overwhelmingly to censure him for ethics violations - a punishment that included a public scolding in the House chamber.

But Rangel didn't cooperate. The rebuke would only work if he felt ashamed.

And he didn't.

At a moment when previous censured legislators had cried, resigned or passed out, Rangel ambled to the lectern on the floor of the House and delivered a proud speech.

"In my heart, I truly feel good," he said.

Congress has long relied on shame to enforce its norms: rule-breaking members were driven out not by force, but by their own consciences and their embarrassed constituents.

But now - whether the reason is hyper-partisanship, or a fragmented society, or the fact that weeping looks terrible on television - shame seems to be losing its grip. Instead, legislators have learned to bully their way through scandal, ignoring their humiliation instead of accepting it.

If this idea had a face, it would be the smile that Rangel wore after his censure.

"If you show shame, or show an honest contriteness, that's likely to appear in a campaign commercial against you," said KC Johnson, a professor of history at Brooklyn College in New York. "The fact is that there's really no incentive to admit to any wrongdoing in this kind of environment."

Those who argued for Rangel's censure said they intended the unusually tough punishment to send the message that members would be held to a new, more stringent code of ethics.

Before him, just 22 people had ever been censured in the history of Congress. And they had received the punishment for crimes such as assault, bribery, payroll fraud and sexual misconduct.

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