Last Sunday, Pulitzer Prize winning cartoonist Steve Benson produced caricatures of Charles B. Rangel (D-NY) complete with pin striped suit, two-tone dress shirt and matching tie and pocket square. The captions under the two-picture set read as follows:
“Just because I enriched myself by cheating on my taxes doesn’t mean I’m corrupt. . .
“It just means I’m a member of Congress.”
There is no institution in America that has a lower expectation for truth, honesty and morality than the United State Congress. And that is not the people’s expectations; that is the expectation of the members. It is memorialized not only in their conduct but also in their procedures and punishments – a euphemism in the case of Congress.
Normally, I bow to the expectations of decorum and use the title of honor bestowed by the office; but in Rangel’s case, as well as the other members discussed herein, they have forfeited any right to any honorific title.
More than two years ago, the House Ethics committee began its investigation of Charlie Rangel. The charges were not difficult to make or to prove and yet it took two years for the House of Representatives to act. During most of that time, Rangel retained his position as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee (tax committee for those educated in Portland’s public school system).
The essence of the charges boils down to three categories – he failed to report or pay taxes on a substantial sum of income, he strong-armed those seeking consideration on tax treatment to fund public buildings to be named after him, and he failed to disclose assets – in particular a villa in the Dominican Republic – in congressional filings.
Rangel’s culpability on the tax evasion allegations was so clear that his advisors got him to use a special provision under the IRS codes that allows scofflaws to pay up without risk of criminal penalties otherwise he could now be facing jail time. His ownership of the villa in Punta Cana Resort has gone on for over twenty years and he is so bold about it that he rents it out to others – probably those seeking favors from his tax committee – for outrageous sums – most of which went unreported on his congressional filings.
And even in the process, the most important question of all was never asked. How did a member of Congress making a relatively modest income of about $175,000 per year, manage to acquire a villa at a high-end luxury resort plus four rent-controlled apartments in Harlem and dress in Savile Row suits?
And for that what was Charlie Rangel’s punishment? Was he expelled and deprived of his right to hold public office? Were the charges referred to state and federal prosecutors for criminal investigations? Was he fined and required to forfeit his pay or even the luxuries of his office? No, he was censured by his colleagues in the House of Representatives. And what does censure entail? By the House’s own rules it requires the member to appear in the well of the House and for the Speaker of the House to formally read the charges on which he is found guilty. WOW – that’s a terrifying punishment. I’m sure that it will discourage others.
And even this belated slap on the wrist couldn’t be done right. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) chose to have the censure after the news cycle, after 6:00 PM (late in the night for the notoriously work adverse Congress). And even then, she chose not to read the whole list of eleven counts as required by the rules, but rather only one count and then quietly slipped away into the night.
But most embarrassing was that at the conclusion of the abbreviated ceremony Rangel’s colleagues did not turn their backs and shun him as they should. There were not cries of SHAME from the members. No there was thunderous applause and a surge to greet and comfort Rangel by other members of the House. Disgusting! ! !
Charlie Rangel is a crook. Only in the bizarre world of the United State Congress would he be treated like a victim to be defended and comforted. Only amongst a melange of other crooks and grifters would he be allowed to continue and to prosper.
Only in the United State Congress will you find the members deliberately avoiding the critical question – how does a Congressman with the modest income of a member become a millionaire? Because if you ask that question of one, you need to ask it of all the others. Others such as Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV), Sen. Chris Dodd (D-NY) and on and on and on.
And before the Republicans puff themselves up into self-righteousness, let’s remember that they too failed to expel members whose conduct was both criminal and embarrassing: Tom Delay (R-TX), Larry Craig (R-ID), and Duke Cunningham (R-CA).
One of the elements of leadership is to set a tone of expectations. For those decrying the slide of America’s moral and ethical standards, you need look no farther than the United States Congress.