EthicsA knuckle-rapping wrong for Rangel

Published 12:52 pm Friday, November 26, 2010

It is always a little sad to see prominent and powerful people brought low, especially when the fall is due to their own weaknesses and a certain sense of invulnerability that powerful people sometimes acquire. It is also the case that the line can be difficult to draw between business-as-usual in Congress and outright criminal corruption where the quid pro quo is glaringly obvious.

The nature of Congress is such that members are involved in a constant trading of favors and legislating in ways that benefit those who are usually political donors, often friends and themselves powerful.

Charlie Rangel, 80, a longtime Democratic congressman from Harlem, is former chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee and one of the more colorful and almost lovable figures in Babylon-on-the-Potomac. Whether his is a tragic instance of simple sloppiness in personal finances that inadvertently crossed the line or outrageous corruption can be argued. But, given the severity of the charges of which the House ethics committee found him guilty, and the fact he offered no defense but flimflam to undisputed facts, suggest the punishment should be far more than a shrug and a slap on the wrist.

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Rangel did not dispute that he had accepted rent-controlled apartments from a developer, which saved him hundreds of dollars a month and gave him a cut-rate campaign headquarters. He did not dispute that he didn’t report or pay taxes on rental income from a villa in the Dominican Republic. He did not dispute that he solicited donations for a center at New York’s City College to be named after him from people with business before the Ways and Means Committee, or that an oil drilling company got a lucrative tax break from the committee at the same time Rep. Rangel was asking its chairman for a $1 million donation.

The House ethics committee choose to ask the full House to censure Rangel, which, if approved, will require Rangel to stand in the center of the House to receive a verbal rebuke and listen to the speaker read the censure resolution. A censure decision has caused some members to resign rather than to face public shaming. Censured members are barred from chairing committees or subcommittees.

If Rangel is willing to face that kind of humiliation, acknowledge his wrongdoing and apologize, perhaps he can avoid being expelled. If he flinches from public accountability, as he has to date, then expulsion would be appropriate.

It’s not that the rest of Congress is so righteous that it must cast out this offending member lest it be stained. It’s that, in a constitutional system, people who become especially egregious examples of the corrupting nature of power should be identified and punished.