Rangel Case Would Be Perfect for New Ethics Commission

Posted July 22, 2008 at 3:23pm

I return today to an area where Congress has fallen woefully short of its responsibilities: ethics. I know that to regular readers, I sound like a broken record on this subject (well, at least for older readers, who know what a record is). But the reason I keep coming back to it is that Congress makes me, by failing to address the issue adequately or at all.

[IMGCAP(1)]My latest concern was triggered by the case involving Rep. Charlie Rangel. The New York Democrat has himself called for an ethics investigation into the letters he wrote on official letterhead to major figures, many with serious interests before the Ways and Means Committee, asking for advice and assistance with the donor community to help fund a Rangel Center for Public Service at City College of New York. When asked by reporters whether his contacts with potential donors create at least the appearance of impropriety, Rangel said: “I don’t get involved in some subjective stuff. I want to get involved in: Did I violate the spirit of the law and any ethical standards that we have in the House of Representatives?”

It is frankly tough to write about Rangel in this situation. He is whip-smart, a great, genial guy, someone who wants to make good public policy and knows how to do it, a key figure in any major policy coming ahead in the next presidency. But the answer to his question is “yes.” If his actions did not violate the letter of the law, they certainly did hit at the spirit. Any sign that the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee — a figure as powerful as any in Congress — is looking for favors from influential and wealthy people and companies for a personal cause near and dear to his heart should raise alarm bells everywhere.

Frankly, the problem is not just in writing letters — even if they are elliptical or carefully worded to avoid a direct request for money. It starts with the idea that someone is exploiting the name of a sitting Member of Congress to raise money. It is high time for Congress to pass an ethics provision prohibiting Congress from naming any bridge, center, highway, courthouse, building or anything else for one of their sitting colleagues. And it ought to be unethical for any Member of Congress to solicit funds or make any intervention on behalf of a private entity named in honor of himself or herself (or a fellow lawmaker). The potential for using the effort for currying favor to gain access or more is just too great. It is not asking too much to wait until the lawmaker is retired, defeated or dearly departed to honor great service or recognize dedication.

I would not want to punish Rangel more than others who have operated under the current system, and, obviously, the penalty depends on findings based on what he actually did, and what the rules and law actually say. Sadly, it is not at all clear that the existing ethics committee is in any way capable of doing this in a credible fashion, if at all.

It is hard to describe how pathetic the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct has become. Roll Call has covered thoroughly the dynamics of this body, including the sniping between the chairman and ranking member (nothing new there, sadly), the departure of its staff director, its failure to do much of anything (partly reflected in its low spending levels). The only good news is that it is at least better than it was at its truly low point after then-Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) blew it up.

But now, its long-standing dysfunction is joined by the other endemic problem: How does the panel do an honest investigation of the Ways and Means chairman, at least one that has the appearance of credibility? Can Democrats do something that will seriously punish or embarrass their beloved and powerful chairman? Can Republicans exonerate a great target for embarrassment — especially since their own party leader was the first one to blast Rangel and call for an ethics investigation?

This is a great case for an independent panel of knowledgeable and fair-minded outsiders to investigate and see how Rangel’s behavior measures up against the ethical standards set by the House. Except we do not yet have this panel, despite the House voting for it more than four months ago. Every sign I have seen and heard says that the Speaker and Minority Leader are getting closer to finalizing their picks for the posts, but other obstacles, including budget and office space, remain. And now it will take more time for them to hire staff and get up to speed. So the chances are close to zero that any such group will be able to deal with this issue, or any other, until at least next year.

That is too bad, for both Congress and Charlie Rangel. There is, I believe, a transgression here, but unless there is more damaging information to emerge, it is likely to be seen by an independent group of observers as a fairly minor one, given the existing state of the law and rules. But any judgment, if there ever is one, coming just from the gang-that-can’t-shoot-straight ethics committee will not pass the credibility test.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.