by Nathan Empsall, Fri Oct 30, 2009 at 07:23:07 PM EDT
The biggest story on Capitol Hill today was the Washington Post's bombshell, "Dozens in Congress under ethics inquiry". You've no doubt heard the story by now: an internal House Ethics Committee report from July was accidentally placed on a publicly-accessible computer by a low-level staffer and made its way into the Post's hands. The report documents over thirty ongoing committee investigations. The Post has yet to post the full document or name all the lawmakers on its webpage, so Capitol Hill is certainly abuzz.
Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner have issued a rare joint-statement pledging to look into computer security, but the unfortunate lapse of confidence is not the story the public will care about. The story that will stick is that over thirty lawmakers are under investigation. The story is that if Washington - a Democratic Washington - can't be trusted to be ethical, than it can't be trusted to touch health care or financial regulations. It doesn't matter if that's true or not; it's still the story. It's what's sexy and it's what people will remember.
Many of these investigations were already well known, and many of the names have already been cleared. Doesn't matter. Most people aren't bloggers, political junkies, or Hill staffers. Most people catch only the broad headlines, and "ethics investigation" is a tough headline from which to recover. This story will fan the populist anti-Washington flames at a time when Democratic Washington requires public confidence to help it effectively address a myriad of national and international problems.
Few things tick me off more than corrupt politicians. They violate the public's trust, tarnish what could be an honorable profession, and often steal our money. They also distract us from what really matters. When Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, climate change, health care reform, job creation, and financial regulations are quite literally all in a day's work, corrupt politicians who undermine our confidence in government are the last thing Americans need.
Speaker Pelosi needs to take the type of action her predecessors, Denny Hastert and Tom DeLay, never took. It has to be the type of action the public, not her Members, will care about. She needs to take a hard line against a symbol of corruption, and that symbol may well be House Ways & Means Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-NY). The long-running investigation into Rangel is quite well-known, but the leaked document contained new information about it. According to the Post,
Rangel said he spoke with ethics committee staff members regarding a conference that he and four other members of the Congressional Black Caucus attended last November in St. Martin. The trip initially was said to be sponsored by a nonprofit foundation run by a newspaper. But the three-day event, at a luxury resort, was underwritten by major corporations such as Citigroup, Pfizer and AT&T. Rules passed in 2007, shortly after Democrats reclaimed the majority following a wave of corruption cases against Republicans, bar private companies from paying for congressional travel.
A personal anecdote about Rangel. I was Senator Max Baucus' agriculture intern during conference meetings for the 2008 Farm Bill - a job so low on the totem pole as to actually be beneath it, yes, but still a good gig for learning one's way around the Hill. At the first conference meeting, I recall Rangel running his mouth off in a way that made absolutely no sense. He was talking about things that weren't in the bill, distorting things that were, and making strange accusations about his fellow Democrats. It was basically just babble. After the meeting, I asked another Member's staffer who I knew what Rangel meant by all that. The staffer told me, "I have no idea - I wasn't listening. One of the first things I learned when I got here was don't listen to a thing Charlie Rangel says." I paid a little more attention to the staffers at the next meeting, and sure enough, when Rangel began talking, everyone began clicking away on their Blackberries.
The word I have typically used to describe Rangel is "buffoon." That might be too harsh. I don't know if the man is corrupt or not. Some say he's just absent-minded and forgets important paperwork. Maybe - he does seem like the type to get lost in his own fog. But the reasons why he has failed to report income and misused apartments don't matter. What matters is the action, not the motive.
Markos and Arianna Huffington have both called for Rangel to step down as chairman of Ways & Means. I join them in that call. That might be unfair to Rangel - innocent until proven guilty and all that - but it would be precisely what the country needs. Fair or not, the man has become a symbol. By asking Rangel to temporarily step down until the ethics investigation is completed, Speaker Pelosi could set aside distractions and send a bold signal to the country that this Congress means business and that the leaked Ethics report is just an aberration - a signal that would be very helpful at a time she and the President seek to gather support for health care reform and clean energy legislation.