House Can Pick Rangel’s Penalty
A Process Exists to Dodge Censure

Correction Appended

The House is expected to rebuke Rep. Charlie Rangel this week with its harshest punishment short of expulsion, but the New York Democrat could still receive a last-minute reprieve.

While the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct voted Nov. 18 to recommend censure — a public dressing-down on the House floor issued by the Speaker — as Rangel’s punishment for repeatedly violating the chamber’s rules, House lawmakers are allowed to issue a lesser punishment. The chamber could take up the ethics panel’s recommendation as early as today, although it is not expected to do so until Wednesday or later.

Democratic officials in Rangel’s district held a news conference earlier this month to encourage Members to support a reprimand of Rangel, which would still require a House vote but would not include a public lecture for the senior Democrat.

State Assemblyman Keith Wright, who attended the news conference, told Roll Call on Nov. 23 that he and other New York Democrats planned to reach out to Members over the Thanksgiving weekend, although he did not name specific lawmakers.

“Myself along with a cross section of the Congressional district simply don’t feel as if the punishment fits the infraction, because that’s essentially what we have here,” Wright said.

Wright noted that the House has traditionally resorted to censure when Members violate the rules for personal financial benefit. While the ethics panel did not make such a finding in Rangel’s case, the committee cited the “cumulative nature” of the Democrat’s actions. Rangel was found to have misused federal resources to solicit donations for a City College of New York center named in his honor, used a rent-stabilized apartment for his campaign office, failed to pay taxes on a villa in the Dominican Republic and filed inaccurate financial disclosure forms.

Neither House Democrats nor Rangel have appealed publicly for reprimand instead of censure, but Rangel did seek his colleagues’ sympathy last week in a statement apologizing for any embarrassment he has caused.

“The final decision on sanctions for violations of the House rules will be made by the full House of Representatives,” Rangel said in an e-mail issued by his campaign committee. “In the end, I hope that you would judge me on my entire record as a soldier and a dedicated public servant — not only by my mistakes.”

According to a source close to Rangel, the New York lawmaker is expected to make a direct plea to this House colleagues when the censure resolution is brought to the House floor.

The source said that Rangel, via his staff, has contacted ethics Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) to request an opportunity to address the House. Lofgren will control one hour of debate in the chamber when it takes up the censure resolution, and she could grant Rangel a portion of that time to speak.

Although it is not known what Rangel would say in an address to his colleagues, the New York lawmaker’s staff recently prepared fliers to share with House lawmakers titled “10 Reasons Why Rep. Charles  B. Rangel Should NOT Receive Censure.”

The two-sided document, first reported the New York Times on Sunday, contrasts Rangel’s rules violations with those of previously censured Members — highlighting wrongdoing including bribes and sexual misconduct — and listing Members punished with reprimands.

Some senior members of the Congressional Black Caucus have made similar statements in the wake of the ethics committee’s vote, including Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who also spoke on Rangel’s behalf before the ethics panel.

“It is left up to the House, and it is my hope that the House would really consider the record, the long history of service of this man,” Lewis said last week on MSNBC when asked what punishment the House should dole out.

Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), an ethics committee member, argued against censure during the panel’s sanctions hearing this month, saying, “The facts of this case do not warrant censure, in my opinion.”

Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), who served on the investigative subcommittee, likewise argued in formal dissent that Rangel’s actions warranted only a letter of reproval, a punishment that does not require the House to vote.

In the event lawmakers try to override the ethics committee’s recommendation and issue a lesser punishment — rather than defeat the censure resolution outright — the effort would involve a motion to recommit, a procedural maneuver made immediately before the final vote.

The strategy has been used before to amend the recommended punishment against a lawmaker, including in the 1978 case against Rep. Edward Roybal (D-Calif.), who was charged with failing to report a campaign contribution, personally benefiting from the contribution and making false statements to investigators. The ethics committee had recommended censure, but the House voted to reduce that sanction to a reprimand.

The House also has voted to issue harsher punishments. It upgraded sanctions against Reps. Dan Crane (R-Ill.) and Gerry Studds (D-Mass.) to censure in 1983, despite the panel’s recommendation to reprimand both lawmakers after an investigation revealed that they had sexual relations with teenagers in the House page program. Minority Leader Bob Michel (R-Ill.) proposed the more stringent punishment as a motion to recommit after Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) called for the lawmakers’ expulsion from the chamber.

Under current House rules, the minority party is given priority to offer a motion to recommit, but members of the majority may also utilize the procedure. Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) indicated his approval of an ethics subcommittee’s censure recommendation prior to the full committee’s Nov. 18 vote.

Correction: Nov. 30, 2010

The article originally stated that Rep. Bobby Scott had sought a letter of reprimand. He actually sought a letter of reproval.

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