Why Charlie Rangel Is Still Smiling

Charlie Rangel’s perch as the chairman of the mighty House Ways and Means Committee is in danger. Supposedly.

The 78-year-old Harlem Democrat, a fixture on Capitol Hill since 1971, has been the subject of a stream of revelations about potential financial and ethical improprieties, the sort of never-ending scandal that would pose a serious threat to his electability if he represented a marginally competitive district. But New York’s 15th District is tailor-made for an entrenched Democratic incumbent to stay in office as long as he wants, so Rangel need not fear the wrath of the voters.

The only real threat to a congressional lifer like Rangel is internal, from within the ranks of his fellow Democrats in the U.S. House. If they want to strip him of his powerful Ways and Means gavel, they can. And, technically, that is what they are now mulling, with the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct — otherwise known as the ethics committee — set to report back on his supposed misdeeds just before the new Congress convenes in early January. But don’t hold your breath waiting for any drama.

Even if Speaker Nancy Pelosi and a majority of the Democratic caucus were inclined to remove Rangel from his post — and, as of now, it doesn’t seem that they are — numerous obstacles, including the obstinate chairman and his allies and some recent history within the Democratic caucus, would make it a trying experience for them.

Start with the the ethics committee itself. It’s no accident that Rangel is the one who actually requested that the panel review his case, or that he declared this week, "Am I confident? You’re damn right. I’m the one who asked for it."

The House ethics committee has a richly earned reputation for giving its colleagues the benefit of the doubt. Rangel has found the perfect body to hear out his various denials and explanations. Very likely, the panel will either clear Rangel or, at worst, declare him guilty of a slight, venial infraction or two. It will be a surprise if the report includes any real ammunition for those hoping to push him out.

Then there are the realities of the Democratic caucus, which, much more than the G.O.P. side, is divided into several powerful camps. One of the most powerful is the Congressional Black Caucus, of which Rangel is among the most senior members. And within the C.B.C., issues of committee chairmanships and assignments are particularly sensitive now, after Pelosi targeted several of the group’s members over the past few years.

An ugly fight nearly erupted, for instance, in the summer of 2006, when Pelosi, then the minority leader, decided to take on William Jefferson, the since-indicted New Orleans congressman whose home had just been raided by the F.B.I. — which discovered $90,000 in cash in his freezer. Republicans accused the Democrats, who had been profiting mightily from a series of ethical scandals involving Congressional Republicans, of hypocrisy. With the November election months away and her party in its best position in years to reclaim the House, Pelosi considered it essential to make an example out of Jefferson and began pushing for his expulsion from his seat on the Ways and Means Committee.

To the general public, the move might have seemed like a no-brainer, but she was met with stiff resistance from many C.B.C. members, who pointed out that no formal rules existed for kicking members off committees, and who accused Pelosi of creating an arbitrary standard to go after a black member.

When, as required by caucus rules, she brought the matter to the full Democratic caucus that June,  chaos erupted, with C.B.C. members and their allies offering a motion that would table the Jefferson matter until formal guidelines were established for committee expulsions. After lengthy debate, the matter was rejected, and then, after some more debate, Jefferson’s ouster was finally approved, with nearly 60 Democrats voting against it.

What’s noteworthy about the Jefferson fight is that he had previously alienated many of his colleagues and didn’t enjoy the full support of the C.B.C. Rangel and other influential members, like South Carolina’s James Clyburn, sat on their hands while Pelosi pursued Jefferson, refusing to add their voices. As a result, the conflict didn’t explode into a full-fledged public fight. But it also served as a warning to Pelosi: If going after someone like Jefferson caused her that much grief, then she’d better not try to touch anyone with real support.

A few months later, though, she did – but the rules were a little different. After the ’06 elections, when her party won back the majority, Pelosi decided to deny her California rival, Jane Harman, the chairmanship of the House Intelligence Committee, a panel that operates under a slightly different set of rules than other House committees. Next in line for the gavel, in terms of seniority, was Florida’s Alcee Hastings, a one-time federal judge who had been impeached and convicted on bribery and perjury charges by Congress in 1989. Still eligible to run for office, he went on to win a House seat from Florida in 1992 and then began racking up seniority.

Appointing Hastings to run the Intelligence Committee, which deals with sensitive national security information, would have been a public relations disaster for the incoming speaker and her Democratic colleagues, so she passed him over in favor of Texas’ Silvestre Reyes (who promptly flunked a reporter’s pop quiz on whether Al Qaeda is a Sunni or Shiite group). This time, Pelosi didn’t need to go through the full caucus for approval, but by moving against a second C.B.C. member in a few months, she made doing so in the future that much tougher.

Which brings us to Rangel’s case. Unlike Jefferson, he enjoys deep and enduring support from the C.B.C., not to mention many senior colleagues outside of the group. The full-fledged fight that Pelosi managed to avoid in Jefferson’s case would almost certainly break out if she turned her guns on Rangel, creating potentially crippling divisions within the Democratic caucus just as Barack Obama takes office. For the C.B.C., giving up Jefferson and Hastings was one thing; Rangel would be an entirely different matter.

Plus, Democrats just went through an ugly committee fight, with Henry Waxman successfully dethroning John Dingell as the Energy and Commerce chairman. Pelosi was publicly neutral in the race, but few doubt that she was with Waxman, her longtime ally and ideological soul mate from California, behind the scenes. Democrats in the House do not take targeting committee chairmen, and by extension the seniority system, lightly. Especially if the ethics committee’s report isn’t too harsh, Rangel would stand to get the benefit of the doubt from many of them.

Given the historic opportunity that waits Democrats on January, when a president willing to sign their legislation will take office, it probably won’t make sense for Pelosi to embark on a protracted and highly public chairmanship fight that would pit members of her own caucus against one another. It’s also worth noting that she decided last year to maintain the three-term committee chairmanship limit imposed by Republicans in 1995. That means she’ll be rid of Rangel by 2012, if he hangs on now.

The most likely outcome of this fiasco, then, is that Republicans will spend the early weeks of the new Congress shouting to the heavens about Rangel’s ethics, offering resolutions to strip him of his chairmanship, and challenging Democrats to join them. As theater, it won’t be bad. But Democrats will probably decide that they’d rather take the heat from the G.O.P. than go to war with themselves.

Why Charlie Rangel Is Still Smiling