Sometimes timing is everything, and that's the rub for Democrats as the Charlie Rangel saga unfolds. The House Committee on Standards and Official Conduct released its bill of particulars against the veteran New York congressman on Thursday -- charging him with 13 violations
of House rules -- and is to hold what amounts to a trial this fall. Only Rangel's resignation or a negotiated settlement will prevent a televised spectacle during high campaign season.
The ethics charges against Rangel include improper corporate-financed travel to the Caribbean; failing to report a half-million dollars in assets on a financial disclosure form; failing to pay taxes on income of $75,000 from a villa in the Dominican Republic; using his congressional letterhead to solicit donations for a school named for him; accepting four rent-subsidized apartments in New York from a Realtor, and using one of them as an office. Rangel has denied any wrongdoing and has said he looks forward to the chance to give his side of things.
Ethics problems are, of course, not limited to one party, and Republican Sens. David Vitter and John Ensign are Exhibits A and B. Still, the GOP has lucked out in several ways.
Vitter -- a married, "family-values" conservative running for re-election this year in Louisiana -- acknowledged "a very serious sin
in my past" after his name appeared on client list for a prostitution ring
. But he hasn't been charged with anything. Meanwhile, the Justice Department is investigating
possible violations of the law stemming from Ensign's extramarital affair with his administrative assistant's wife. But the investigataion of the Nevada senator, which involves money and employment help he gave to the family, does not appear likely to come to a head during this election season.
Another piece of good fortune for Republicans is that they're not in charge. After Democrats won control of the House in 2006, future Speaker Nancy Pelosi went on "NBC Nightly News" and pledged to "drain the swamp" -- that is, she explained, "turn this Congress into the most honest and open Congress in history." Is my memory that good? No, I was reminded of this by a press release
from the GOP House campaign committee.
Democrats argue that they are in fact draining the swamp -- that Rangel is no longer chairman
of the Ways and Means Committee, that the ethics investigation has been led by Democrat Zoe Lofgren, that they are policing their own and that justice is being served. Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) said Rangel asked for and deserves his day in court. "I'm not going to prejudge anybody," he told me Wednesday after a breakfast sponsored by the progressive Third Way think tank.
But some at-risk Democrats are taking such precautionary steps as returning campaign contributions from Rangel or donating them to charity. Reps. Walt Minnick of Idaho and Betty Sutton of Ohio have said Rangel should resign. When I posed the resignation question to Rep. Tom Perriello (D-Va.) at the Third Way event, he mumbled and stumbled and didn't finish any sentences, but left the impression his opinion could hinge on the ethics panel findings due Thursday.
The situation is delicate for so many reasons, not least of which is that Rangel is a pioneering black lawmaker from Harlem, first elected in 1970. Rep. Barbara Lee, chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus
, warned against "a rush to judgment." Rangel, she said, "deserves to be treated fairly." Jamilah King
, writing on the "racial justice
" website Colorlines, wondered "how, and when, do we hold our elected officials of color accountable?" She called the "ordeal" of a trial "potentially devastating to other black elected officials."
Beyond race, there's Rangel's role in national life. He is 80, the fourth-longest-serving member of Congress, and he has wielded enormous influence over tax and entitlement policy for decades. How depressing for such a career to end in a resignation deal or a public skewering, perhaps accompanied by a GOP ad campaign and midterm losses for his own party.
Corruption cuts most deeply against the party at the helm. Republicans were in charge in 2006 when an election-season problem arose. Rep. Mark Foley
of Florida – chairman of the House Caucus on Missing and Exploited Children, no less – admitted in late September to sending sexually explicit messages
to male House pages under the age of 18. He submitted his resignation practically within hours, and the GOP went on to lose the seat and the House.
Democrats controlled the House in 1994 when another Ways and Means chairman, Dan Rostenkowski, got into trouble. He was indicted that year in connection with an embezzlement and money-laundering scandal at the House post office, and Republicans won control of the House for the first time in decades. Connolly said there was a "pattern of corruption" in 1994. Rangel's current predicament is more of a distraction, he said, "a sad and isolated case that will have a limited impact" on the election.
Perriello said his moderate and conservative constituents aren't asking him about Rangel. "People want jobs. People want to be able to feed their families and pay their bills right now," he said. He also said Republicans "have so many of their own ethics problems" that they're not eager to make ethics a defining issue. Yet Perriello also made clear that he's tried along the way to insulate himself from any fallout. He called for Rangel to step down as chairman, he voted for the ethics investigation, he returned the money he received from Rangel.
Those are probably prudent moves. The GOP already has started hammering Democrats about Rangel even without daily headlines from an ongoing trial. And freshman Perriello -- who won in 2008 by 727 votes -- is considered perhaps the most vulnerable member of the House.
Democrats have dozens of at-risk members who achieved improbable victories in 2006 and 2008 amid backlash against George W. Bush. Their careers hang on the razor's edge, in toss-up races that prevailing winds could blow either way.
In 2000, when Al Gore won the popular vote by half a million votes and lost the presidency by 524 votes in Florida, might-have-been scenarios were rampant among Democrats. If only Gore had performed better in that first debate, or forcefully defended his own character, or been more attentive to his home state of Tennessee. If only Ralph Nader hadn't run, or the Palm Beach butterfly ballot had been better designed, or Gore had asked Bill Clinton to campaign among the voters who still loved him. Any one of those things could have made the difference.
That's the problem for many House and Senate Democrats now. They are already up against a terrible recession, high unemployment, huge federal deficits and debt and an inability to get some of their top priorities past the Republican blockade in the Senate. Any one of those could tip exposed Democrats into the loss column. The last thing they need is Rangel on trial as they make the case for why they should be re-elected and their party kept in power. Due process and the presumption of innocence are all well and good, but even Rangel knows the stakes. This is, as he has said, "very, very political