Debra J. Saunders

The Rangel Center for Public Service

The House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct -- also known as the House ethics committee -- issued a Statement of Alleged Violation last week to Rep. Charlie Rangel, D-N.Y. To sum it up, Rangel thought he could skirt the rules and get away with it.

Earlier this year, the ethics committee admonished Rangel for taking corporate trips to the Caribbean in violation of House rules.

This go-round involves -- I kid you not -- the 20-term congressman's quest for a Rangel Center for Public Service at City College of New York. Rangel thought it would serve the public interest to "preserve the work of (his) public life." So in 2005, while a top Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, he began requesting earmarks of $6 million for the center.

In what the committee sees as a probable violation of House rules, Rangel had his staff draw up a list of potential donors -- which happened to include large corporations, tax-exempt foundations and charitable trusts with interests in his committee's rulings. He sent letters on House stationery, using the House franking privilege, to deep pockets and squeezed donations from individuals with intense interest in Ways and Means Committee votes.

Rangel's lawyers issued a response that argued, "If he mistakenly used the wrong letterhead or other modest resources for this worthy cause" -- that worthy cause being the Rangel Center for Public Service -- "the error was made in good faith." (Ahem. That's like forgetting to pay your taxes in good faith.)

The ethics committee also hit Rangel for receiving a rent-controlled apartment for his political action committee and failing to claim rental income on federal tax returns.

Rangel's predicament must be very painful for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, who once argued that she would "drain the swamp" of corruption in Congress.

Now Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill stresses the "bipartisan, confidential and independent ethics process in the House."

You can argue that it does not reflect on Pelosi if Rangel broke the rules. But it does reflect on Pelosi if Democrats behave as if they don't have to abide by the rules. What drives voters crazy is not so much that some lawmakers abuse their office as the fact that they get away with it for so long.

The ethics committee offered to allow Rangel to accept a reprimand -- read: slap on the wrist -- on the 13 charges, but Rangel refused.

Then on Monday, Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Los Angeles, followed Rangel's lead in challenging an ethics committee probe into her possible role in lobbying for a bank in which her husband owned stock. The bank, OneUnited, got $12.1 million in TARP funds.

It always was a conceit for Democrats to portray themselves as the ethical political party. The Republicans had Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay to prove that power corrupts on the right by turning the party of small government into an agent of big spending. The Democrats have Rangel and Waters -- who have managed to mix racial politics with the arrogance of incumbency.

In that spirit, Rangel and Waters have demanded trials where, at best, they may convince their peers that if they did not break the rules, then they showed little interest in safeguarding the reputations of their party or their institution.

As the November elections approach, two House trials will parade two Democrats who will argue that they acted in the name of "disadvantaged and minority students" (Rangel) or "minority-owned banks" (Waters). And you think Americans have contempt for Congress now.


Debra J. Saunders


 
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