Arrogance and entitlement



One of these days (or weeks, or months), the Democrats will presumably wake up and finally face the fact that one of their top congressional players has come to epitomize the arrogance of power - and that their refusal to slap him down is tantamount to condoning his corruption.

Charlie Rangel - chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, the fourth-most senior House member, and a legend among black politicians - is the biggest ball and chain weighing down the Democrats' political prospects as the 2010 election season draws near. With the economy still in the pits, the last thing Democrats need is to be tagged as the new "party of corruption." But their ongoing indulgence of Rangel veritably invites the Republicans to tout that label.

By the way, that's the same label that Democrats successfully affixed to the incumbent House Republicans during the runup to the 2006 congressional elections, and the same label that Newt Gingrich's Republicans used successfully against the incumbent House Democrats in the 1994 elections. Midterm elections tend to attract a disproportionate share of voters who are really ticked off about something; not infrequently, these elections become populist uprisings against the party in power.

The problem for the current party in power is that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi pledged to run an ethical regime; in fact, she says she has "drained the swamp." But if voters come to perceive a yawning gap between promise and perfomance, that could spell trouble in the '10 elections. Currently, the House Ethics Committee is scrutinizing the behavior of 15 members; 11 of them are Democrats. And a nonpartisan watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), recently published its new list of the 12 most corrupt House members - seven of whom are Democrats.

Rangel made the list, for the second straight year. Understandably so, since he appears to be the poster child for institutional entitlement...not to mention a clinical case of willful amnesia.

The House ethics panel launched a probe of Rangel one year ago, and it's still not done. Are panelists dragging their feet, either to protect Rangel or to spare Pelosi the difficult decision of demanding that the old bull cough up his chairmanship? Perhaps. But perhaps the probe is taking so long simply because Rangel has given them so much to probe.

At a time when the average American is hurting, consider all these ways that Rangel could hurt the Democrats politically:

This guy - who, as the chair of Ways and Means, writes our tax policies - apparently spent years hiding much of his own income from the tax man. He failed to report, on required congressional disclosure forms, that he owned income-generating properties in New York, New Jersey, Florida, and the Dominican Republic. He also failed to report, on those financial forms, that he had two bank accounts with a combined value as high as million bucks. He failed to report his dividend income from other investments, and he failed to report what he pocketed from the sale of a Harlem townhouse, not to mention the rental income he had made off that townhouse prior to sale.

We know this stuff now because Rangel himself, in the midst of the ethics probe, has miraculously remembered so much of what he had previously forgotten. He has been busy revising those disclosure forms, even while insisting for the record that he has done nothing wrong. You can judge for yourself whether hiding roughly $1 million in financial assets, over a span of at least eight years, constitutes doing nothing wrong.

And I'm not even counting all the subplots, such as the allegation that he and an oil-drilling company traded improper monetary favors. (The oil firm reportedly gave $1 million to a public policy institute that's near and dear to Rangel's heart - it's called the Charles Rangel Public Policy Center - and Rangel pulled some strings to protect a tax loophole that's near and dear to the firm. Or perhaps it was the other way around.)

Republicans have naturally called on Pelosi to boot Rangel from the tax-writing chairmanship (a new GOP resolution is expected to be introduced this week), but they'd be just as happy to have Rangel right where he is. Even though the ehics panel has yet to render a finding, one might think that the Democratic leaders would recognize the obvious political risk of keeping Rangel in charge - starting with the fact that Rangel is a key player on the tax side of the health reform issue. Republicans, as part of their inevitable messaging on the corruption issue, will be able to say to the voters, "Do you want to be taxed for health reform by the same guy who doesn't pay his fair share of taxes?" Or maybe something like, "He wants to write tax rules for you, but he doesn't think the rules apply to him."

But Democratic leaders won't touch Rangel for a host of reasons: They don't want to tick off the Congressional Black Caucus, if only because they need those members' votes on health care reform. And they wouldn't want to replace Rangel on Ways and Means with the guy who's next in line; that would be Pete Stark, who is best known for his big mouth, given the fact that he once called a GOP congresswoman "a whore," that he once called a black Cabinet official "a disgrace to his race," and that he once called a Republican congressman a 10-letter epithet that cannot be repeated here. (It graphically describes a man who is orally intimate with his genitalia.) And most importantly, Rangel has been a loyal House Democratic toiler for nearly 40 years, and Pelosi values loyalty. 

Nevertheless, the Democratic leaders may be advised to remember that a Republican senator, Ted Stevens, was convicted last year in a federal court on charges of failing to report financial goodies on his congressional disclosure forms - assets that were far modest than those in Rangel case. Stevens' conviction was later dumped due to prosecution misconduct, but the point here is that such allegations are serious enough not only to merit criminal attention but, at minimum, to darken the clouds for an incumbent party during an election season.