Editorial: Follow through on draining congressional 'swamp'
After nearly two years of investigation, the laundry list of ethics charges faced by long-serving New York Democratic Congressman Charlie Rangel is finally and officially getting dealt with. Better late than never, we suppose.
A judicial panel of the House Ethics Committee met last week for opening formalities in what will be an internal, non-criminal trial of the former chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee. (He quit that post under pressure.) Among the 13 alleged instances of malfeasance, the 40-year legislative veteran is charged with inappropriately soliciting donations for a college center named for him, using a rent-stabilized residential apartment as a campaign office, hiding income from an overseas vacation home in the Dominican Republic, and not reporting more than $600,000 in income on required financial disclosure forms.
Should he be found guilty, the penalty from colleagues could range from a reprimand - a slap on the wrist - to an official censure to expulsion from Congress. History suggests expulsion is rather unlikely. The bipartisan group of congressmen "prosecuting" the case before the committee is pushing for only a reprimand, though several of the charges could also be breaches of federal law; criminal prosecutors may yet elect to go after Rangel.
In the near term, some are irritated that the Harlem lawmaker's attorneys are still trying to reach a settlement to short-circuit the legislative trial. At least one Republican on the evenly divided panel would have to agree to the deal, but none have shown an inclination to do so. GOP Rep. Jo Bonner of Alabama, one of eight members sitting in judgment, quite rightly said the time for deals is over: "Mr. Rangel was given multiple opportunities to settle this matter. Instead, he chose to move forward to the public trial phase."
It ought to be embarrassing for Democrats trying to hold onto their majority to have a former top chairman in this position, especially after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's 2006 vow to "drain the swamp" of corruption in the House. Politics may well play a part in Republicans' refusal to negotiate further, but leadership Dems have played right into their hands (just as leadership Republicans undercut themselves when they tried not to notice former Congressman Tom DeLay hammering his way through the House). Several on the left also have called on Rangel to resign; others have returned donations from him. Among his few vocal supporters left are members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), which he founded. Its members have lately warned that those who represent areas with large African-American voting blocs might want to think twice about urging Rangel to quit.
That's absurd, and the CBC ought to be ashamed of itself. The same ethical principles and rules should apply to all members of Congress, regardless of party, seniority, likeability or race. The last time we checked, Congress hadn't adopted as its official motto "Rules for thee, but not for me." Rangel deserves the opportunity to defend himself, but the acts he is accused of, if accurate, represent behavior not befitting a congressman, let alone one writing the nation's tax laws.
The only thing that should halt a trial now would be a decision by Rangel to resign his seat. Otherwise, let the chips fall where they may after a full, fair hearing of the facts. If the end result is that the charges are proven, panel members should send a message to the rest of Congress by levying a heftier punishment than a meaningless reprimand.
We might add that there are numerous other lawmakers under investigation of ethics violations or otherwise under a cloud, including Democrats Maxine Waters, D-Calif., for allegedly intervening with the feds when a bank her husband invested in was in trouble, and Jesse Jackson Jr., for his alleged involvement in the Rod Blagojevich Senate seat imbroglio. "Drain the swamp" means "drain the swamp." Let's hope those investigations don't take as long as the Rangel matter has.
Journal Star of Peoria, Ill.