Washington Matters


Time for Rangel To Step Aside


There's no good game plan for Democrats wrestling with the growing Charlie Rangel problem. As a member of the House representing New York's Harlem since 1971, Rangel has amassed a huge amount of power. A founder and leader of the Congressional Black Caucus, he's now chairman of what's arguably the most powerful committee in Congress -- the House Ways and Means Committee. He has the lead in tax legislation and has a major role in just about everything else Congress does. Most Democrats are either loyal to Rangel or afraid of him or both, and they're not likely to risk their own careers by attacking him.

That's all the more reason why Rangel should take the honorable route and voluntarily step aside.

There's no doubt that Rangel deserves a presumption of innocence, and no formal or permanent action would be fair before the ethics committee completes its work. But Rangel isn't disputing most of the facts -- only dismissing them as innocent mistakes or misunderstandings. Thus the committee's primary job will be to determine not so much what he did, but whether his explanations are believable and whether his actions amount to sufficiently serious violations to warrant a formal rebuke.

As in most matters of ethics, appearances matter, and the fact that Rangel is so powerful makes it all the more urgent for him to move to the sidelines on key policy issues until his case is decided. It's ridiculous for him to exercise huge power when his own actions raise so many questions.

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Rangel's problems first came to light in July 2008 when the New York Times reported that he held leases on four rent-stabilized apartments in New York City, using at least some of them as campaign offices. Then came disclosures that he failed to report on his taxes about $75,000 in rental income on a villa he owns in the Dominican Republic. In a clear violation of House standards, Rangel also used his official letterhead to solicit donations for a City College Center named in his honor. Most recently, he corrected his personal financial disclosure form to add $500,000 in assets that were previously unreported, doubling his net worth. Rangel denies any wrongdoing, and attributes the discrepancies to errors in accounting, misunderstandings and shoddy work by his aides.

The ethics committee had already held more than 30 closed door meetings, issued 150 subpoenas and interviewed 34 witnesses when it decided last month to expand its investigation into the recently corrected disclosure statements. An ethics committee report probably won't be out until next year.

Republicans have tried to force Rangel to step aside, at least temporarily, but Democrats have stood together to block such a move, largely because House Speaker Nancy Pelosi stands behind Rangel. The first cracks in unity appeared on the most recent vote, with two Democrats siding with Republicans, but it's highly unlikely that Democrats will force Rangel to step aside unless and until the ethics committee comes down with a strong negative verdict.

In the meantime, Rangel plays a crucial role in negotiations on health care, as well as talks on whether to extend the Bush tax cuts when they expire, what to do about the estate tax, whether to crack down on corporate income from abroad and hundreds of other crucial issues.

Democrats will ultimately pay a political price for being too timid to push Rangel aside, and well they should. Republicans, of course, have their own ethical embarrassments to deal with, but Democrats took control of Congress and the White House with a pledge to take a hard line against corruption.

Charlie Rangel may have a lot to be proud of as he looks back on his 39 years in Congress, but he's in danger of overshadowing his achievements. His best chance for redemption is to take the high road and step aside now. He can always come back with renewed energy if he's cleared by the committee, though it's hard to see that happening.




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