By Earl Ofari Hutchinson
Politics does, indeed, make strange bedfellows. How else to characterize one of Congress’s loudest, most outspoken ultraconservatives, Rep. Peter King of New York, protesting the House vote to censure Harlem congressman Charles Rangel, an African-American, a Democrat, and a longtime paragon of liberalism?
Of course, King’s defense of Rangel had nothing to do with political affection, identification, outrage over his treatment, or even fear that the censure vote could set a dangerous precedent. No, the point was to ensure that the corruption spotlight shone brightly on the Democrats. That’s exactly what’s happened.
On the one hand, it’s hard to feel much sympathy for Rangel. He didn’t just flaunt the rules—he mocked them. As a longtime member of the House Ways and Means Committee, and for the last four years its chairman, Rangel enjoys enormous power over tax policy issues. Yet he blatantly failed to pay taxes on his own property for several years. In his half-hearted pleas for mercy, even Rangel repeatedly acknowledged that he had made “serious mistakes.” After the imbroglio broke, speculation was rampant about what might happen to him. Rangel refused a deal. He won reelection to a 21st term, so there was not much chance that he’d be expelled. When the House Ethics Committee found him guilty, by a 9-to-1 vote, of 11 violations of House rules, censure became a virtual certainty. And in fact, this week he became the first member of Congress to be censured in more than a quarter century.
Now Rangel and, to a lesser extent, California Rep. Maxine Waters are firmly imprinted in the media and public mind as the poster pair for congressional corruption. They’re black, high-profile, high-ranking Democrats, and they’re outspoken. This instantly made them inviting targets. Yet the media crucifixion of Rangel also absolves Congress from taking any real action against other of its worst offenders.
There are dozens of other lawmakers not named Rangel who are just as deserving, if not more so, of being thrust onto the political hot seat. In October 2009, for example, 27 other members of Congress were named as being under investigation for possible ethics violations. When a congressional staffer leaked a summary of the Ethics Committee’s preliminary report, the panel made it clear that the investigations were merely preliminary and the suspected violators had not been formally charged. But the checklist of allegations was far from petty: sweetheart arrangements with lobbyists, illicit campaign and finance dealings, questionable receipt of gifts, failure to disclose said gifts and other property, and questions about the reporting of taxes.
Beyond the seriousness of Rangel’s offenses, there are two glaring reasons why the other congressmen and women supposedly under investigation have escaped the same level of scrutiny. Most of the other suspected violators aren’t as well known as Rangel. And they lack his seniority and power. Only a handful on the list are Republicans, so House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the House Democratic leadership couldn’t use their names to stoke public fury about alleged GOP misdeeds, whereas the other Democrats under suspicion lack Rangel’s visibility, so going after them offered the party little advantage on the P.R. front.
Making an example of Rangel, on the other hand, allows Pelosi and the Ethics Committee to self-righteously claim that the ethics rules work, that the committee is doing its job, and that House Democrats can police their own. California Rep. Zoe Lofgren, the Democrat who chaired the House Ethics Committee (and a close friend of Pelosi’s), boasted that censuring Rangel proves that Congress will keep its promise to hold its members to a higher standard of ethics.
Those are noble words. But the rule of thumb in Congress has long been that you do the deals, take the money, and bend and twist the rules—just not in a way that is so flagrant and outrageous that it draws media and public attention. And most definitely not when elections are looming and Republicans can use charges of corruption to hammer Democrats or—as happened in 2006—vice versa.
Rangel has been brought low. The same may happen to Waters, who faces an even more hostile, GOP-controlled Congress whenshe returns to face the music next year.
But don’t expect to see any otherson the congressional rogue’s list being held to task. Unless, of course, their comeuppance carries major political benefits.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He hosts nationally broadcast political affairs radio talk shows on Pacifica and KTYM Radio Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter and on thehutchinsonreportnews.com