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As Rangel demonstrates, shame no longer required after political wrongdoing

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.

Rangel had done none of that. His offenses included using congressional letterhead to solicit donations for an academic center named for him, housing campaign offices in rent-controlled apartments and failing to pay taxes on a Dominican villa.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) - the chair of the House ethics committee, who acted as lead prosecutor on the House floor - wanted Rangel to serve as an example.

"We need a higher standard," Lofgren said. The House agreed: Rangel's peers voted 333 to 79 for censure, the most severe punishment Congress can mete out short of expulsion.

Then, when his moment of ignominy arrived, Rangel stole it.

"I ask unanimous consent to address the House for one minute," he said as soon as Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was finished reading out the censure statement. He told his colleagues that he had never used his office to enriched himself and said, "I know in my heart that I'm not going to be judged by this Congress."

With his confident response, Rangel laid bare the weakness at the heart of this punishment, said Professor Julian Zelizer, a historian at Princeton University.

"If you are not shamed by a censure," Zelizer said, "there's not that much more that censure does."

It did not always work this way. In the 1800s, congressmen facing censure often resigned before the vote - or immediately afterward.

And the punishment kept its sting into the 20th century. In 1921, congressman Thomas L. Blanton (D-Tex.) ran from the House chamber and collapsed. In the Senate, a vote to "condemn" Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy (R-Wis.) in 1954 was a devastating blow to the career of the feared leader of Communist witch hunts.

"Even the press corps wouldn't take his press releases after that," said Donald Ritchie, the Senate historian.

It was effective partly because shame often works in ways that laws alone don't. People adhere to rules of politeness and morality because they fear being shunned.

"It's innate, and it's normal," said Gershen Kaufman, a professor emeritus of psychology at Michigan State University. "It alerts us to the fact that our most important human bonds have been severed."

But recent political history has taught different lessons. Voters now seem more willing to look to an accused politician's own reaction in judging the severity of his or her conduct. The more ashamed the politician appears to be, the worse it must have been.

In 1983, two congressmen were censured on the same day, for having sex with teenage House pages in different incidents. One, Rep. Daniel B. Crane (R-Ill.), seemed to accept the shame of the moment: He wept on the House floor. He apologized. He even voted for his own censure.

The other, Rep. Gerry Studds (D-Mass.), did the opposite: He told the House that his conduct did not deserve this punishment. When the vote on his censure came, he voted "present," a peculiar congressional option which is neither yea nor nay.

Both men ran for reelection. Crane lost. Studds won.

Rangel may have felt empowered to emulate Studds's defiance because he holds a safe congressional seat: Despite his troubles, last month his constituents awarded him a 21st term with about 80 percent of the vote.

It also may have helped that he is a representative and not a senator.

In the smaller, more clubby Senate, shame has not lost as much of its power: of the 14 senators ever censured, condemned or reprimanded by their peers, only one won reelection. That was in 1902, when a South Carolina senator was censured for a fistfight on the Senate floor.

The rest - including recently reprimanded senators Roland Burris (D-Ill.), Larry Craig (R-Idaho) and Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.) - either lost, or did not seek, reelection.

"The House is just a big body that works by numbers, whereas the Senate is much more personality-driven," so the rebukes may sting more, said Ritchie, the Senate historian.

He said it is also harder to convince an entire state, and not just a small congressional district, that what you did wasn't so bad. "House members have been able to survive politically after censures," Ritchie said. "For the most part, [in] the Senate, it's been a very serious blow."

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