Pelosi's Choice: Rangel or the Swamp

Pelosi's Choice: Rangel or the Swamp

By David Paul Kuhn - February 27, 2010

Draining swamps is not so popular today. It's bad ecology.

We could understand Nancy Pelosi's defense of Charlie Rangel this way. It's an issue of conservation. I've heard those San Francisco liberals love the environment. Forget promises to "drain the swamp" during the 2006 campaign. She wants to conserve her ally's job.

Don't get Pelosi wrong. Surely, if a powerful House member "has proven himself to be ethically unfit" we know "the burden" indeed "falls upon" his party to oust him. In such a case, party leaders would obviously ask: "Do they want to remove the ethical cloud that hangs over the Capitol?"

So Pelosi explained in October 2004. The subject was Tom DeLay. The House ethics committee had admonished the Republican majority leader. DeLay used the Federal Aviation Administration to track Democratic state rivals. He hosted a fundraiser with energy lobbyists while energy legislation was under consideration.

Pelosi argued: "We must stop the influence of special interests so that the people know that we are here for the people's interests."

After all, this is why we have institutions like the Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service. Except, that is, for the namesake and the center. An oil drilling company (special interest) made a $1 million donation to Rangel's center. The quid pro quo, allegedly, included legislative favors. The matter, like so much of Rangel's world, is under investigation.

Rangel has one of the powerful jobs in government. The New York Democrat is chairman of the House Ways and Means committee. The committee has jurisdiction over all taxation. And that's the rub. Rangel has a problem paying all his taxes.

The chairman failed to report more than a half million dollars in income. He later amended his financial disclosure forms. Perhaps it was a senior moment. The public servant simply forgot about his New Jersey real estate and a quarter million dollar account.

But perhaps he's just corrupt. There are other investigations. Possibly still more absent taxes, this time regarding rental income and a Dominican villa. There's the four rent-stabilized Harlem apartments used by Rangel, reportedly, well below market value. House lawmakers cannot accept gifts worth more than $50.

Rangel's cloud grew still larger on Thursday. The House ethics committee ruled that Rangel violated Congressional rules by accepting Caribbean junkets.

Thank goodness for Pelosi's past stands. Back in October 2004, the ethics committee had not yet acted on DeLay's links to a more serious money laundering investigation. But Pelosi saw that as no excuse. The cloud was big enough. Action had to be taken on behalf of the "people's interests."

Certainly, Pelosi is not foolish enough to apply a Democratic double standard. Well, you know how this goes. In Washington, the cynics are rarely proven wrong.

Some Democratic lawmakers are calling for Rangel to step down. But not the House leader. She says slow down. Don't jump to those conclusions. She told reporters Friday, "There's obviously more to come and we'll see what happens with that."

This year already looks like an awful political storm for Democrats. Pelosi is hoping one more cloud won't matter. This is what many party leaders do when they are in the eye of the storm. They forget how ugly it looks from the outside.

Rangel has served in Congress for nearly four decades. The grey pol does not want to leave the stage on this note. We get it. But Rangel is harming his party by holding that gavel as well as his cause. It's prime red meat for Republicans. This year, Democrats are dogged by great anxiety over potentially higher taxes. And their top man on the tax committee is not paying all his taxes.

Pelosi knows how these stories end. Her party lost control of Congress in 1994, in part, because of Democrats' ethical issues. Newt Gingrich pledged to clean the town up. Pelosi's Democrats regained power making the same pledge.

DeLay spanned this period. He was the onetime exterminator who infested the House. His most recent claim to fame is inelegantly dancing on television. DeLay is a cautionary tale. A joke. But he is also a serious lesson in what happens to those partisans who confuse loyalty for cause and power for principle.

We know Washington was built on a swamp. But Pelosi need not let Rangel be one more reminder of it.

David Paul Kuhn is a writer who lives in New York City. His novel, “What Makes It Worthy,” will be published in February 2015.

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