We did not take any joy in the sight of Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-NY) standing before Speaker Nancy Pelosi in the well of the House of Representatives chamber as he was formally censured for wrongdoing. Just minutes earlier, the veteran lawmaker’s colleagues voted 333 to 79 to censure Mr. Rangel over ethics violations, including 17 years of unpaid taxes and more than half a million dollars in undisclosed financial assets. The vote to censure Rep. Rangel was largely bipartisan, with most of the opposition coming from members of the Congressional Black Caucus. Throughout Mr. Rangel’s ordeal, the Caucus has remained his fiercest defender and unsuccessfully sought to have a less significant penalty imposed, such as a reprimand.
This is a sad turn of events with a couple of competing truths. The House Ethics Committee did not find Rep. Rangel guilty of any criminal offenses. Still, his transgressions were serious and his tax violations problematic given that he once chaired the powerful House Committee on Ways and Means, the tax- writing panel in Congress. The Democratic leadership forced Mr. Powell to step down as chair of the committee when it became evident that the charges against him would lead to a formal investigation. In a bit of irony, Rep. Rangel called for a complete investigation to clear his name, only to have the ethics committee vote 9-1 to recommend censure to the full House.
The practical effect of the censure is that Rep. Rangel’s influence will be diminished somewhat. The censure, loss of the chair of the Committee on Ways and Means, and return to minority status when Republicans take over the House in the 111th Congress signals a new reality for the Harlem Congressman. It is certainly not the way many of us thought Mr. Rangel would conclude his stellar career in Congress. Still, his constituents reelected him in November and he continues to enjoy support within his district and beyond. The larger question now is whether Rep. Rangel will seek reelection in 2012 or work to effect an orderly transition of leadership in his district.
One glaring lesson for Black elected officials from the Rangel saga is that in today’s hyper-partisan and increasingly personal political environment, there is no room for error. There is no excuse for poor record keeping or lapses in compliance, and there is little sympathy, even from Blacks, when Black elected officials face charges for such transgressions. While “race” is a constant factor in American politics, when Black politicians stumble in this manner, the general thought is “they should have known better.” While we wince when Blacks in leadership positions come under attack, there is also a growing fatigue among the Black electorate over behaviors and practices that common sense should forewarn politicians is unethical or illegal. There is now too much history of wrongdoing to feign ignorance when found to be in violation of the rules.
Rep. Rangel can still play a valuable role in the 111th Congress. At a time when the Black community is being devastated economically, we need voices of conscience on Capitol Hill to speak truthfully about the human condition. His opponents will now ridicule Mr. Rangel and attempt to brand him as irrelevant, but the dean of the New York delegation should take comfort in knowing that he is working in a glass house. He has made some mistakes, some serious mistakes. However imperfect he may be, Mr. Rangel is serving in an imperfect institution that repeatedly has shown indifference to millions of Americans. Just witness the failure to extend unemployment benefits and it becomes clear that the House on the Hill has its own ethical failings.
We encourage Mr. Rangel to fix the violations and then - get back to work.