What's Next for Rangel?
This hasn't been the greatest week for House Ways and Means Chairman Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.). On Friday, he was on the front page of the New York Times in a story about his occupying four rent-controlled apartments in Harlem, three for his residence and one for a campaign office. Today, he was on the front page of the Washington Post for having solicited contributions from interests with business before his committee for a foundation named after him.
A good rule of thumb for any politician: Try not to make the front page of two major papers over two separate sets of ethical questions in the same week.
The veteran New York lawmaker took a step this morning to address the charges in the first story by reportedly deciding to move his campaign office out of one of those rent-stabilized apartments. The Times reports that there are "city and state guidelines that require rent-stabilized apartments to be used solely as a primary residence." Beyond that apparently clear misstep, Rangel has defended his living arrangment and denied that he is abusing any laws or regulations. There is no obvious basis for the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct to launch an investigation of the apartment issue, unless it can be shown that Rangel's rental rates constitute an improper gift from the building's owner and/or that he took some official action in exchange for the apartments.
As for today's Post story, which you should read in full and in which Rangel again denies any wrongdoing, the ethics outlook is less clear.
The first thing to note is that many lawmakers steer federal money to entities named after them. Sens. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), for example, both have Centers for Disease Control buildings named after them, and they control the Appropriations subcommittee that sets the CDC's budget. The Anchorage airport is named after Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens (R), and so on. Steering taxpayer money to a project that will be named after you is not, by itself, a violation of any ethics rules, even if it might be a distasteful practice to many critics.
The second point to consider is that many lawmakers run charitable foundations, whose donors don't have to be disclosed publicly, and several have "centers" named after them headquartered at colleges and universities for which they raise money, like the upcoming Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service at the City College of New York. There's the McConnell Center for Political Leadership at the University of Louisville, the Lott Leadership Institute at the University of Mississippi and the Murtha Educational Center at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, just to name a few.
The most obvious potential red flag for Rangel in the Post story is the fact that he used congressional stationery to set up meetings with potential donors to the center at City College. The letters to potential donors cited don't actually mention money or donations, only that Rangel would like to "discuss" his "vision" for the center with the recipient.
The House ethics manual says that official House resources, specifically including stationery, "must be used for the performance of official business of the House, and hence those resources may not be used for campaign or political purposes." The manual later states, "Official stationery, like other official resources, may be used only for official purposes." Does Rangel's desire to discuss the new center constitute "official business"? And did Rangel ask for donations at any of the meetings arranged via these letters? The ethics panel might well want to find out.
But what about the fact that Rangel apparently solicited donations from companies and groups with interests before his committee? That's a murkier area.
Members regularly raise money from groups affected by the committees they sit on or chair, whether for their reelection campaigns or the aforementioned foundations and leadership centers. If that practice was banned, lawmaker fundraising might drop precipitously. The ethics committe has generally steered clear of cracking down on these types of donations, unless there is some clear-cut evidence of impropriety or quid pro quo (i.e. a letter that says, "If you give me X donation I will move Y bill through my committee"). In a controversial 2004 action, the ethics panel did send then-Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) a "letter of admonition" for a campaign fundraiser he held with energy companies, writing that "his actions, at a minimum, created the appearance that donors were being provided with special access to Representative DeLay regarding the then-pending energy legislation."
For an ethics investigation of Rangel to occur, either a fellow House member would have to file a formal complaint against him (which is highly unlikely) or the panel would have to decide on its own to launch a probe. It's important to note that Nov. 4 is less than four months away, and the ethics committe is usually hesitant to push forward with any probe too close to Election Day. A new Office of Congressional Ethics, designed to screen potential complaints from outside sources, is theoretically supposed to be up and running by now, but it isn't, because House leaders have yet to nominate anyone to run it. And according to Roll Call (sub req'd), the staff director of the ethics committee has told colleagues he will leave the post by early August to return to the private sector.
So while it certainly has been a rough week for Rangel, it's possible that things won't get much worse. There does appear to be enough fodder for an official probe of his actions, but the details of how and when such an investigation would be conducted remain unclear. In the meantime, Rangel might just want to try to stay off the front page for a little while.
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