Every few months for the last year or so, Congressional Republicans—and their various amplifiers in the media—kick up a fuss about Charlie Rangel and the financial and ethical clouds hanging over him, demanding that the Ways and Means chairman step down and then feigning surprise when Speaker Nancy Pelosi refuses to push him out.
Among other things, Rangel stands accused of failing to disclose rental property income, using a rent-controlled apartment as a campaign office, and living large on lobbyist-funded junkets.
So in terms of ginning up popular anger, the Republicans’ task is easy: How can a man who didn’t pay all of his taxes be in charge of the tax-writing committee? Didn’t Pelosi say she’d run the most ethical Congress in history?
And it only helps their cause that Pelosi’s hands are essentially tied. For a whole bunch of complicated reasons involving racial and factional politics within the House Democratic caucus, she can’t take on the task of giving Rangel the boot by herself. She needs cover. And she’ll only get cover if he’s formally charged with something, or if he’s rebuked by the ethics committee, which is now reviewing his case but has yet to take any action.
Republicans know this, of course, and they’re happy to take every opportunity they get to rub it in Democrats’ faces.
This week—yet again—they’re ratcheting up their attack, this time with a charge being led by Representative John Carter of Texas, who offered a resolution on Wednesday that would have revoked Rangel’s gavel—a resolution that, in a break from normal House custom, he insisted on reading in its entirety, a process that lasted for more than ten minutes.
It was good theater (Rangel was actually in the chamber as Carter made his case), even if the result was foreordained. On a vote of 243-156, the House refused to consider the motion and instead referred it to the ethics committee. In other words, Pelosi and the Democrats protected Rangel from an up-or-down vote on his chairmanship—and protected themselves from having to go on the record on the matter. (Only one Democrat—Mississippi’s iconoclastic Gene Taylor—voted against this maneuver.)
What’s interesting about all of this is how one-sided the politics of it are. Every time the G.O.P. tries to “take action” against Rangel, it guarantees extensive news coverage—allowing the party to simultaneously deliver red meat to its base (Gee, do you think Fox News will be devoting any airtime to the Rangel resolution tonight?) and to turn independent voters, who will find no logic in any Democratic defense of Rangel, against the ruling party.
For the Democrats, meanwhile, defending Rangel is an absolute political loser. The headlines generated by the G.O.P.’s efforts poison the party with casual voters and undermine the Democrats’ efforts in other crucial areas: Republican love to point out that Democrats are trying to jam Charlie Rangel’s health care bill down Americans’ throats.
This raises an obvious question: If the Democrats are getting nothing out of defending Rangel, why don’t they just give him up? The answer is that a lot them (probably including Pelosi, at this point) would very much like to, but the vagaries of House Democratic politics make it pretty much impossible—for now.
While political operatives think in terms of winning the message war on any given day or in any given week, many House Democrats do not. They hail from safe seats and are impervious to serious reelection challenges, even if their party is having a miserable year. This insulation leads them to fixate more on internal politics—on whether they and their allies are being treated fairly when it comes to committee chairmanships and assignments
This is particularly true with the Congressional Black Caucus, many of whose members represent solidly Democratic districts created and protected by the Voting Rights Act. Rangel is a perfect example of this: For 20 terms, he’s represented New York’s 15th District, which gave Barack Obama 93 percent of its vote last fall.
Understandably, the CBC tends to be very protective when it comes to its members’ chairmanships. Many CBC members believe that they are informally blocked from running for statewide office by party leaders who instinctively view black candidates as less electable, so they are sensitive about maximizing their power in the House.
But twice in the last three years, Pelosi has taken steps to remove or block CBC members from key committee posts—both times because, as with Rangel now, they were hurting the party’s image nationally.
The first such instance came in the summer of 2006, after the feds discovered $90,000 in cash in Representative William Jefferson’s freezer. (He’s since been indicted and convicted.) At the time, Democrats were scrambling to win control of the House in the ’06 midterms and Republicans—like with Rangel—were raising hell about Jefferson.
So Pelosi moved to oust him from his Ways and Means seat. She had some cover too, since Jefferson had alienated many of his fellow CBC members (including Rangel, who signed off on Pelosi’s move). Even still, the process of removing him was a brutal, weeks-long, politically taxing ordeal. Plenty of CBC members stood with Jefferson, and some non-CBC-ers joined with them, arguing that he hadn’t been formally charged with anything. Pelosi finally got her way—but nearly 60 Democrats sided with Jefferson on the final vote.
Months later, just as Democrats won back the House, Republicans began targeting Florida’s Alcee Hastings, who was due to become chairman of the Intelligence Committee. As a federal judge in the early ’80s, he’d been brought up on bribery charges, impeached and convicted. Then he won a House seat in 1992 and began his climb up the seniority ladder.
Pelosi decided not to hand Republicans the gift they were hoping for, and instead passed over Hastings for the chairmanship, handing it instead to Texas’ Silvestre Reyes. The CBC was willing to let this go, but with an implicit suggestion: Don’t do this again. Which makes it pretty much impossible for Pelosi to move on Rangel right now. Jefferson and Hastings were essentially CBC backbenchers when Pelosi took them out; Rangel is a legend in the group, revered by its members (and by plenty of non-CBC members of his generation).
What could change this equation is a harsh report from the ethics committee, which has taken far longer with its probe than anyone expected. A recommendation that Rangel step down as chairman could give Pelosi enough cover to proceed. But anything short of that, and there won’t be much she can do. And until the ethics committee makes its report, there’s really nothing Pelosi and her fellow Democrats can do except take it on the chin.