House censures Rep. Charles Rangel
After high political drama and an emotional debate, the House of Representatives censured Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) on Thursday for ethical misconduct, meting out its first such punishment in nearly 30 years.
As the often raucous body came to a standstill, the 80-year-old former chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee stood in the well of the chamber, hands clasped in front of him, while Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D- San Francisco) somberly read the censure resolution:
“Resolved, that Rep. Charles B. Rangel of New York be censured; the representative will present himself in the well of the House for the pronouncement of censure … [and] pay restitution to the appropriate taxing authorities of the U.S. Treasury for any unpaid estimated taxes … and provide proof of payment to the [Ethics] Committee.”
Then the gravelly voiced congressman, who has represented Harlem for 40 years, told colleagues: “Even though it is painful to accept this vote … I know in my heart I’m going to be judged not by this Congress but by my life, my activities, my contributions to society.”
He said it had never entered his mind “to enrich myself or to do violence to the honesty that’s expected of all of us in this House.”
Rangel left the chamber to applause and hugs from a number of Democratic colleagues who thought the punishment too harsh.
During the hourlong floor debate, Rangel apologized to fellow lawmakers and pleaded for leniency. He argued that his ethics violations were due to carelessness, not corruption, and that other House members had received lesser punishment for more egregious offenses. He also recalled his brush with death as an infrantryman in the Korean War.
But 170 Democrats joined with 163 Republicans in voting 333 to 79 for the most severe House discipline short of expulsion.
The vote followed a two-year investigation by the House Ethics Committee. Last month, an adjudicatory ethics panel found Rangel guilty of 11 ethics violations, including failure to report income and pay taxes on a villa in the Dominican Republic, soliciting contributions under a congressional letterhead for the Rangel Center for Public Service at City College of New York, and misusing a rent-controlled Harlem apartment as a campaign office. He walked out of his trial without mounting a defense, complaining that he couldn’t afford a lawyer.
The censure is the first in the House since 1983, when Reps. Dan Crane (R-Ill.) and Gerry Studds (D-Mass.) were censured for sexual relationships with teenage congressional pages.
Before the roll call, Rangel told the hushed chamber that he had made “serious mistakes” but argued that his offenses didn’t warrant “the humiliation of a censure.”
“I brought it on myself, but I still believe that this body has to be guided by fairness,” he said.
Rangel, overwhelmingly reelected last month to a 21st term despite the charges against him, drew some support Thursday from the other side of the aisle — Republican Reps. Peter T. King, a fellow New Yorker, and Don Young of Alaska voted against censure.
“If expulsion is analogous to the death penalty, then censure is life imprisonment,” King said. He asked fellow lawmakers to “pause for a moment” and “reflect upon not just the lifetime of Charlie Rangel, but more importantly the 220-year history of tradition and precedent of this body.”
“Let us apply the same standard of justice to Charlie Rangel that has been applied to everyone else and which we would want applied to ourselves,” he said.
But Ethics Committee Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose) countered that Rangel had “violated the public trust” and “brought discredit to the House.”
“While it is difficult, actually painful, to sit in judgment of our colleagues, it is our duty under the Constitution to do so,” she added.
“The American people’s confidence in us is at historic lows,” said a member of the ethics adjudicatory panel, Rep. Michael McCaul (R- Texas). “They want their elected representatives accountable for their actions.”
McCaul added: “While I sincerely feel for Mr. Rangel as a human being, I feel more strongly that a public office is a public trust, and Mr. Rangel violated that trust.”
Rep. Jo Bonner of Alabama, the top Republican on the Ethics Committee, told colleagues, “When you go back home this weekend, try explaining to your constituents that it’s OK for a powerful member of Congress, the chairman of the tax-writing committee, to not pay his taxes.”
Rangel, who relinquished chairmanship of the Ways and Means Committee in March in the face of the ethics allegations, becomes the 23rd congressman to be censured in the history of the House. The first, in 1832, was an Ohio lawmaker accused of insulting the House speaker. Others have been censured for striking a fellow lawmaker with a cane, for supporting recognition of the Confederacy, for selling military academy appointments, for bribery, for padding the office payroll and for accepting improper gifts.
Ethics cases against Rangel and another prominent black lawmaker, Rep. Maxine Waters (D- Los Angeles), have exposed tensions between black Democrats and other party lawmakers. A number of Congressional Black Caucus members called Rangel’s punishment too harsh.
Waters, whose trial has been postponed while the Ethics Committee investigates new evidence, supported a reprimand for Rangel but opposed censure. The House rejected the softer punishment, 267 to 146.
Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Oakland), leader of the Congressional Black Caucus, called censure “an overly harsh sanction, especially considering that after a two-year investigation the committee found no evidence of corruption or personal financial gain.”
The vote came as a coalition of groups called on leaders of the incoming Republican House majority to preserve the Office of Congressional Ethics. The panel of outsiders was set up in 2008 at Pelosi’s behest in response to criticism that lawmakers had been reluctant to vigorously investigate their own.