By Benjamin Todd Jealous
President & CEO, NAACP
This is neither a defense nor an indictment of Congressman Charlie Rangel, That split decision has already been rendered by the people of Harlem in his re-election results and by the House Ethics Committee in their recommendation for censure. I have no quarrel with the Committee’s finding that the Congressman violated a number of its rules and deserves a proper sanction. But I also agree with the Congressman’s Harlem constituents who by their overwhelming votes on November 2nd reaffirmed a bedrock principle of American justice — the punishment should always fit the wrong.
On November 16th, an Ethics subcommittee found Representative Charles B. Rangel to be in violation of 11 House ethics rules. This included using the wrong stationery to solicit funds for a public university located in his congressional district, failure to disclose required information on his Financial Disclosure statements, underreporting income on his federal tax returns and using a rent-stabilized apartment as an office. It should be made clear, however, that there were no findings of corruption, criminal wrongdoing, or otherwise acting for personal gain.
Congressman Rangel’s violations could have resulted in four possible sanctions: Letter of Reproval, Reprimand, Censure or Expulsion. On November 18th, the Ethics Committee recommended a censure. On November 29th, the Committee sent its censure resolution to the House floor, meaning that a vote of the full House could occur within days.
In reviewing past cases, it becomes clear Congressman Rangel’s recommended punishment is unfair and disproportionate. As noted conservative columnist and lifelong Republican Ben Stein recently wrote, “Rangel’s misdeeds seem like extremely trivial matters.” It is easy to see how he came to that conclusion.
History is littered with Members of the House who were reprimanded (a lesser punishment than the censure Congressman Rangel is facing) despite more egregious rules violations than those facing Congressman Rangel. In 1976, Rep. Robert L.F. Sikes was reprimanded for failure to disclose certain personal interests in official matters and for the apparent use of his office to further his personal financial interests. In 1978 Rep. Edward J. Roybal received a reprimand for the failure to report campaign contributions and for making false sworn statements before the Committee. In 1984, Rep. George V. Hansen was reprimanded for false statements on financial disclosure forms. And in 1997, Rep. Newt Gingrich received a reprimand for allowing a Member-affiliated tax-exempt organization to be used for political purposes.
By contrast, censures have been reserved for far more serious violations, including treasonous conduct, bribery, and sexual misconduct. I was a House page in 1989 and served with a page who was among the first allowed to work for a member a Congress following that Member’s 1983 censure for sexual misconduct with a page. I remember the pall that still hung over that office. I agreed with the vote for censure in that case then and still do today. It absolutely fit the violation.
In determining proper sanctions for Member violations, the Ethics Committee’s guiding principle has always been the nature of the violations,— a principle that has been explicitly contradicted in this case. The Committee has also traditionally weighed mitigating factors. If each of these principles were applied in this instance it would have been clear that the nature of Rep. Rangel’s offenses may have risen to the level of a letter ofreproval, but certainly not censure.
Mitigating factors not considered include the loss of his Chairmanship of the Ways and Means Committee, his public admission of mistakes, his damaged reputation, and long legacy of patriotic sacrifice. That legacy includes 40 years of outstanding service to the people of Harlem. It includes putting his life on the line for democracy here at home during the 1965 voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery, And it includes exemplary courage on a Korean War battlefield where a young Rangel earned a Bronze Star with a V for Valor.
Let me be clear: This is not about race or politics. This is about fairness. Any Member of Congress who has violated ethics rules must be disciplined, including Congressman Rangel. In doing so, however, Congress must always be fair and consistent in ensuring that the punishment fit the violation.