If anyone doubted the resiliency of House Ways & Means Committee Chairman, Rep. Charles B. Rangel, Democrat of New York, they should guess again. After being hit by a barrage of negative press coverage, including an editorial in the New York Times calling for him to temporarily surrender his leadership post, the long serving House member defiantly announced he was staying put. His decision was supported by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
For weeks the Harlem Democrat has come under intense scrutiny over several personal bookkeeping blunders that proved to be an embarrassment although no criminal intent has been alleged. The errors stem from a vacation property that Mr. Rangel owns in the Dominican Republic and his failure to pay appropriate taxes on the home. The charges came on the heels of an earlier disclosure that Mr. Rangel has several rent subsidized apartments in a Harlem condominium that also doubled as an office. In both instances the New York lawmaker called for the House Ethics Committee to investigate the charges.
Republicans quickly jumped on the latest revelations and began to call for Mr. Rangel to step aside as the head of the Ways & Means Committee, if not permanently then temporarily while the Ethics Committee conducted its probe. Not surprisingly, a few newspapers jumped on the bandwagon and called on the congressman to resign. As pressure mounted Congressman Rangel met behind closed doors with the House Democratic leadership and was given a vote of confidence. For many Members with seniority the thought that they could be subject to removal from their chairmanships on the basis of charges bearing no criminal intent was shocking. Removing Mr. Rangel from his post would have set a precedent that many Members felt the situation did not warrant.
Mr. Rangel’s tenure comes at a time when the nation’s economy is reeling and lawmakers are struggling to determine what mix of aid or incentives is necessary to jump start the economy. Much of that work resides in Mr. Rangel’s committee since it has oversight over tax issues. His abrupt removal would have also sent the wrong signal at a time when the White House and Congress understand the need to convey a sense of calm in the financial markets and in corporate America as the nation struggles to recover.
Removing Mr. Rangel at this could have also created a major political problem for the House leadership and the Democratic Party, and by extension the campaign of Senator Barack Obama. Having rose through the ranks and navigated Congress’ seniority system, Rep. Rangel made history by becoming the first Black lawmaker to be appointed chair of the powerful Ways & Means committee. Any attempt to force him out would have been awkward given the Democrats need to keep Black voters invested in the November presidential and congressional elections. The relative silence from the Obama camp was a strong signal that there would not be a transition in committee leadership at this time. Just two weeks ago Senator Obama publicly called for the embattled, now former mayor of Detroit, Kwame Kilpatrick, to step aside; a move that all but sealed the mayor’s fate. This time there would be no such input from Senator Obama.
What’s next for Mr. Rangel? He will have to contend with continued criticism from some corners of the media until all of his accounting issues are satisfactorily resolved. The findings of the ethics panel, not expected to show any criminal wrongdoing, will most likely result in one final mea culpa from the congressman but little more. While Republicans on the Hill try to score political points, their focus on Mr. Rangel will likely subside now that it is clear he is staying put and has the backing of Speaker Pelosi. Things could change, however, if there are any subsequent major revelations regarding his personal finances. As both parties race to November 4, this matter will likely take a back seat to contested House races and the biggest prize of the day: The White House.