As the House ethics committee prepares to levy punishment today on Rep. Charlie Rangel, he may take some comfort in knowing that the penalties available to the committee expire at the end of December when the 111th Congress adjourns.
That means even if his House colleagues were to expel the New York Democrat from the chamber — a scenario almost no one on Capitol Hill actually expects to take place — Rangel, who has been re-elected to the 112th Congress, could walk right back onto the House floor next year.
Perhaps more importantly to Rangel, if the House were to censure him — a less far-fetched penalty — the related Democratic Caucus rule that would prevent him from becoming the ranking member of the Ways and Means Committee would no longer be binding when the new Congress convenes in January.
The Committee on Standards of Official Conduct is set to hold a sanction hearing today to determine whether and how to punish Rangel, after an adjudicatory panel found earlier this week that the New York lawmaker repeatedly violated House rules.
Under the chamber’s rules, the committee may select from a range of punishments, the most significant of which are reprimand, censure and a motion for expulsion from the chamber, all of which require a vote of the House. The panel could also issue a “letter of reproval,” a lesser penalty that does not mandate a House vote.
But even if Rangel is ultimately punished by the House, any technical ramifications will expire when the 111th Congress ends in a few weeks.
“The House is not a continuing body,” said Charles Tiefer, a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law who has served in both the House and Senate general counsels’ offices. “The punishments of the 111th Congress stay in the 111th Congress, sort of like what happens in Las Vegas stays in Las Vegas. It’s very much a new Congress that starts in the 112th Congress.”
The House Democratic Caucus’ rules prohibit a Member who has been censured from serving as a chairman or ranking member during the Congress in which the punishment occurs. But that Member is eligible to return to the seat in the next session.
The Caucus rules do not contain a similar prohibition if a Member is reprimanded or sanctioned with a lesser punishment.
Roll Call reported Monday that Congressional Black Caucus members at a weekly meeting said Rangel raised the possibility of returning to the top Democratic seat on the Ways and Means panel next year. Rangel declined to comment on the subject at that time, although a handful of CBC lawmakers indicated they would support his bid.
The New York lawmaker forfeited his gavel in March after the ethics committee reprimanded him in an unrelated investigation for taking part in two Caribbean trips that violated House rules because the events received corporate funding.
But even if Rangel is technically able to seek that post, his reputation could continue to be clouded from such a public shaming.
“The issue about his viability as a candidate for Ways and Means isn’t going to turn on what the [ethics] committee decides or the House decides. It’s a political calculus that the Caucus is going to have to deal with,” said Stefan Passantino, a former Republican House aide who is now head of the political law team at McKenna Long & Aldridge.
Rangel was found guilty of misusing federal resources to solicit donations for a City College of New York center named in his honor, using a rent-stabilized apartment as his campaign office, failing to pay taxes on a villa in the Dominican Republic and filing inaccurate financial disclosure forms.
But Tiefer suggested that Rangel could argue his recent re-election to a 21st term grants him a clean slate in the next Congress.
“Every Member of the House who was in the 111th Congress and was re-elected to the 112th Congress has gone before his constituents and [Rangel’s] constituents have decided how they see the charges,” Tiefer said. “To punish him in another Congress is to put an unfair burden on those constituents.”
“The act of election is a cleansing process in a democracy. That cleansing decision on the voters’ part should be respected,” he added.
When the ethics committee meets today, Rangel and Blake Chisam — the panel’s chief counsel, who acted as a prosecutor during the adjudicatory hearing — will each be allowed 30 minutes for oral arguments in favor of their requests.
If the ethics committee votes to punish Rangel via reprimand, censure or expulsion, the committee must then issue a privileged report to the House, including a resolution on the proposed penalty. The resolution may brought to the floor at any time after the committee files its report.