A sad chapter in the political career of the legendary New York Rep. Charles Rangel came to a close Thursday evening when the House of Representatives voted to censure him for 11 ethics violations. A seemingly contrite Rangel and several of his colleagues had spent much of the past week trying to drum up support among lawmakers for the lesser penalty of reprimand, to no avail. By a vote of 333-79, the House voted to censure Rangel, wielding the most severe punishment that a member can receive short of expulsion.
He is now part of an infamous group of 22 other lawmakers who have been censured and the first since 1983, when two members were punished for having improper sexual contact with congressional pages.
After House Speaker Nancy Pelosi read aloud the one-paragraph censure resolution, Rangel said, “I know in my heart I am not going to be judged by this Congress. I’m going to be judged by my life, my activities, my contributions to society and I just apologize for the awkward position that some of you are in.”
Similar reasoning led several lawmakers to spend a good part of the day rallying other members to support leniency. The Congressional Black Caucus, which in the opinion of several political observers has developed a reputation for pushing positions based more on emotion than thought, had been working behind the scenes for weeks to develop a strategy that members hoped would result in a reprimand for their beloved colleague, who, many concede, behaved improperly, though without malice. The group appointed Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Virginia), who took part in the ethics committee’s investigation of the case, to mount a defense for reprimand before the vote, during which he cited several examples of members who’d committed more serious offenses yet were only reprimanded.
“He knows he messed up. He knows he will be punished,” Scott said. “He just asks that he is punished like everyone else.”
The CBC also felt it was important to line up White lawmakers, including a conservative Republican member of the New York delegation, Rep. Peter King, to speak on Rangel’s behalf. Still, they were disappointed by the Democratic caucus overall. “Some people that we thought were going to be helpful were not,” said one CBC member, hinting that some members aren’t as “progressive” as they claim to be.
Rep. G.K. Butterfield, an African American member who served as a judge during Rangel’s ethics trial, used part of the time allotted to the ethics committee to speak to push for reprimand. Earlier in the day, he told reporters that many members were unaware of the facts of the case, but after hearing them, anyone who is truly objective, would conclude that reprimand is the appropriate sanction. He also offered an amendment for reprimand that failed by a vote of 146-267, with the help of 105 Democrats.
Rangel’s cherished position as former chair of the powerful tax-writing House and Ways Committee may have negatively contributed to his fate.
“The decision to recommend [censure] was not made lightly,” said ethics committee chairwoman Zoe Lofgren (D-California). “It brought discredit to the House when this member, with great responsibility for tax policy, did not pay his taxes for many years. We follow precedent, but we also set it.”
It didn’t have to be this way.
Rep. Artur Davis (D-Alabama) said that Rangel had previously had several opportunities to accept a plea deal for the lesser sanction. In fact, he noted, in a regular criminal or even civil court, it would be unreasonable to get such a deal after a plea had been offered and denied, and the defendant had been convicted. In addition, he said, such a deal would send the wrong message to other members facing a similar ordeal.
“He could have plea bargained a reprimand several months ago. To decline it and get the same result you would have gotten if you’d entered it makes no sense. It would never happen in the criminal justice system; it wouldn’t even happen in the civil system if there were an enforcement action brought against someone and it shouldn’t happen here,” said Davis. “Otherwise the message to a member will be deny the charges, contest them as vigorously as possible and you’ll still end up no worse than if you’d entered into agreement. Institutionally the House has very little choice but to find this resolution of censure.”
At a press conference following his ideal, Rangel stood his ground, saying that several members had been guided more by voter reaction than conscience. Though many, like Davis, believe he could have avoided Thursday’s ordeal. An adamant Rangel concluded that this unfortunate footnote in the history books was “very, very political.”
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