No one likes being scolded. It’s worse when it happens in front of your colleagues, and on C-SPAN, and when the event appears in the papers the next day. The House voted to censure Rep. Charlie Rangel yesterday, which meant he had to stand in front of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who sounded quite sad, and have a statement of his wrongdoing read out. It was like he had been called into the principal’s office, magnified by about a million.
So it’s not so surprising that Rangel spent a good chunk of the day yesterday trying to convince his colleagues to spare him. He did have some supporters. At yesterday’s House debate, a series of his colleagues argued that he deserved a lesser penalty, a reprimand. It felt like a group of kids protesting an unfair punishment of their fellow. His New York colleague Rep. Peter King said that if expulsion was like the death penalty, censure was like a life sentence. (A reprimand would be the same scolding as a censure, but in writing.)
To review, the main charges against Rangel focused on his misuse of House resources, mistakes on his financial disclosure forms, and failure to pay a portion of his taxes. Censure is used very rarely as a punishment in Congress; members who pledged loyalty to the Confederacy, in the 1800s, were censured, for instance.
The debate focused on precedent, and whether Mr. Rangel’s actions did or did not merit censure, the second-worst punishment the House imposes on one of its own, when he or she engages in “disorderly behavior.” Rep. Zoe Lofgren, who led the argument against Mr. Rangel, pointed out that the House had promised to reach new heights of ethical standards. Mr. King, and others, argued that using censure as Mr. Rangel’s punishment were going overboard. The protests in support of Rangel had a sense of “there but the grace of god” about them.
The vote yesterday marks the end of a process that has dragged on for years. For a long time, the chatter about the investigations centered on the political gains Republicans could make from attention focused on misbehavior by Rangel and his colleague Maxine Waters (who ended up getting off scot-free). But it turns out, Republicans didn’t really need Rangel to make major gains in 2010; the political and economic climate were hurting the Democrats worse than the “overzealousness and sloppiness,” as it was put during the ethics process, of one of their longest tenured members.
The real referendum on Rangel happened already, anyway. His constituents voted him back into office. If he had stepped down or had not run for reelection, as many urged, this unseemly smear would be one of his last appearances in the Congressional Record. Instead, he has another two years — maybe more, if he wants! — to pile on new legacy-making work. As he said yesterday, “I’m going to be judged by my life, my activities, and my contributions to society.”
He certainly counts as an elder statesman. With the Democrats in the minority in the House, he has little to lose, too. The best thing he could do, at this point, is to draw on his experience and his panache to zing the Republicans every chance he gets, drawing himself as a liberal truth-teller, unmotivated by power or personal gain.