(Yes, I know they're British. It was way better than the American vid I found.)
So, Charlie Rangel has been in the news a lot recently. Congressman Rangel, recently re-elected, is a 40-year veteran of the Senate who was, until March, Chairman of the influential Ways and Means Committee in the House. He has been under investigation for violations since 2008.
In case you're not familiar with the case, the formal hearing by the House Ethics Committee began in November to investigate several alleged ethics violations. Rangel was accused of multiple violations, including failure to fully report and disclose income/assets and improperly using his position to raise money for private parties. Shortly after the trial convened, he was found guilty of all but one original count (11 of 12, since 2 of the original 13 were combined). His leadership of the Ways and Means Committee, which influences tax law, is especially significant with relation to his violation of those same tax laws.
Rangel argued that he was unable to properly mount a defense because he could not retain his lawyers, who had to date collected roughly $2 million in fees.
I'm actually not blogging to debate whether he was guilty or not. What I've been thinking about is the consequences.
I'm not a lawyer, so I can't speak to the legality of what Rangel did. There do not seem to be criminal charges pending, which is interesting. I did listen to an interview where one expert pointed out that private citizens who make omissions on tax forms (within a certain extent) are often given the opportunity to pay restitution to the IRS. They're not automatically sent to jail. This touches lightly on another debate: should political figures be held to a stricter standard than private citizens?
I'm also not sure if Rangel's use of Congressional letterhead to raise money for a private party through which he received some benefit walks the fine line between unethical and illegal. Another possible factor is that a criminal conviction would require evidence that Rangel acted deliberately with criminal intent.
There seem to be a range of consequences when a member of Congress is found in violation of ethical policies. The most mild is a letter of reprimand, the most extreme, expulsion. One possible outcome for Rangel is censure.
In a censure, the censuree (?) stands in the 'well' of the House (basically in the front of the room), in front of all his colleagues, while the Speaker (still Nancy Pelosi) reads the list of violations.
Apparently, there has not been a censure of a Representative in the House since 1983 (there have been censure of a publication, and censures of individuals such as Mark Sanford at the state level, however, since then). At least one interview has suggested that individuals in Rangel's position resign rather than face censure.
There is also an ongoing campaign to reduce the punishment to a letter of reprimand.
What bothers me about this is that I can't fully understand 1) How this is a matter of so much public debate, and 2) How Censure is so scarring for those involved.
Let's deal with #1 first.
There are a lot of issues we face as a nation. We are struggling with health care reform, employment, the economy, the national debt. Every day we march closer to disaster (or austerity measures, or both). We have a split House and a Democratic president who (and I say this as a supporter) says he is above the system of politics-as-usual, but doesn't seem to understand that he's going to have to work within it. Republicans are already threatening to stall all progress through the lame duck session unless certain concessions are made over the tax cuts set to expire this year.
And yet, every time I've turned on the news this week, I hear about Congressman Rangel.
The facts seem clear. Evidence was presented that he violated ethics. He was found guilty. Let's move on to the real issues, then?
Like #2: the impact of a Censure.
The impact of something like Censure probably comes in two parts: personal humiliation and political fallout.
To be clear, Rangel's list of wrongs has already been made public. Unless he has his head buried in the sand, or unless he ascribes to the belief that it doesn't matter what the rest of the world thinks (I have yet to see a politician that does this), he has already been 'humiliated'. Everyone (who pays attention) knows what he did. So on one hand, it can hardly make anything worse. On the other hand, going to the trouble of announcing the violations in a Censure almost seems childish: like the kid who has to stand in the corner for breaking a school rule. (do they still do that? Hm. Maybe not.)
On an interview on NPR's Morning Edition (you can listen by clicking the link at the top of the page), it was suggested that many of Rangel's colleages are embarrassed at the idea of condemning their own colleague. They would rather see him resign, or see him receive a more private reprimand.
I understand that members of Congress form relationships and work closely together over many years. Congressman Rangel has served for roughly half his life. That's a long career. But... really? You can't call someone out for obviously making some bad choices? How are you possibly going to address the hard questions we face now?
The other side of Censure is the political fallout. This violation comes at a hard time for Democrats, when the general public seems hostile to any political party that is perceived to have the 'upper hand.' Hence the roots of the Tea Party Movement. The attention a Censure would garner (although I don't see how it could be more than what's out there) is negative publicity for Democrats and for Rangel, who is up for a primary run soon. Democrats also run the risk of appearing the 'corrupt side' of government if they're too lenient on such a public case.
The debate on whether or not to censure Congressman Rangel begins at noon today. I only hope it can go quickly, so that the people in office can move on to the jobs they were elected to do.