By Liz Peek
As the House prepares to launch on Thursday a rare, public ethics inquiry into alleged misdeeds by New York Rep. Charlie Rangel, it is clear that Rangel remains defiant. He is fighting the House Ethics Committee tooth and nail, claiming that he wants to “make certain, before this election, people know who Charlie Rangel is.” Most Americans know who Rangel is: the poster child for term limits.
Rangel, who has served nearly 40 years in the House of Representatives, including a tour as head of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, illustrates the corruptive nature of political tenure.
Ask those who keep watch over our congressional scoundrels for the most common characteristic of nominees to the annual Most Corrupt list, and they will nominate prolonged service. Indeed, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) has listed Rangel as one of our 15 most corrupt politicians since 2008.
The tragedy is that despite serial misbehavior, Rangel will not lose his job. The Ethics Committee (formally known as the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct) will likely give him a slap on the wrist, possibly in conjunction with an apology and perhaps a bunch of roses to make sure there are no hard feelings. (Rangel has been extremely helpful in raising money for his colleagues.) Moreover, voters in his home district appear poised to reelect him. Such is the power of incumbency.
Those not paying close attention might think that the charges against Rangel -- which have not yet been specified but could include inappropriately using a rent-stabilized apartment for an office, filing inaccurate financial statements and using congressional letterhead to solicit funds for a center named for him at City College of New York -- are a one-off. They would be wrong. As his power has grown over the years, so has the number of complaints against him. One of the most egregious acts of defiance was a 2008 trip to the Caribbean hosted by corporations seeking access to legislators. This annual event engaged the Black Congressional Caucus, which routinely streamed south for a little sun and fun, despite increasingly stringent House rules forbidding receiving such largesse from corporations. There is absolutely no doubt that those attending the event knew it violated the rules.
Ken Boehm, a representative of the National Legal and Policy Center, photographed the prominently and visibly placed placards acknowledging Citigroup and IBM as among the host companies. As investigators dug deeper into charges involving the outing, the Ethics Committee finally acceded to public outrage and launched a full investigation. Who was put in charge of the inquiry? Representative G. K. Butterfield, himself a member of the Black Congressional Caucus who had attended the junket in 2005.
Two months ago, some 19 members -- nearly half of the total -- of the Black Congressional Caucus introduced a resolution aimed at muzzling the newly active Ethics Committee. They were furious that several of their colleagues -- including Rangel -- had come under investigation. The request for a softer, gentler Ethics committee was ignored. The credit for that goes to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Polls have made it clear that Americans are disgusted by Congress. Yet, given the manner in which our congressional districts are formed, the importance of fundraising and the power of office, it is almost impossible to bounce an incumbent -- even if he is a crook. In 2008, 94% of House incumbents were reelected; over the past 35 years the number has dipped below 90% only once. This needs to change -- via term limits. Unhappily, getting those in office to pass a law restricting the number of terms that a senator or representative can serve is akin to asking for a suicide pact. Having said that, there are some enlightened members of Congress -- encouraged by South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint -- who are pushing for term limits. It is doubtful that they will succeed, but it is a mission that should gain traction.
Power corrupts and it appears that extended power corrupts profoundly. Rangel should go, and his legacy should be term limits.
Liz Peek is a financial columnist. For more visit LizPeek.com