Charlie Rangel’s pending date with a censure vote before the full House of Representatives has prompted a lot of historical digging into great congressional scalawags of the past.
By any reasonable standard, Rangel — no matter what you think of him — appears to come up pretty short.
Remarkably, given some of the skeevy characters who have floated in and out of the House in the past 100 years, only five have been censured since World War One.
Today, the Times‘ indefatigable Robert McFadden tramps through some of the truly ancient history back when “unparliamentary language” was enough to get you shamed in front of the House. McFadden describes this violation as “a grab-bag for name-calling, mud-slinging and insults mostly in Civil War-era debates.” Actually, the bad language findings continued as late as 1921 when Thomas Blanton, (D. TX.) got the “C” brand for reading a letter into the Congressional Record calling someone a “goddamn liar” and “low-down son of a bitch.”
McFadden puts Rangel’s ethics violations — improper fund-raising, failing to pay taxes on rental income, and failing to disclose income on Congressional financial filings — “somewhere in the middle.”
But when you compare Rangel to the allegedly hyper-ethics sensitive post-Watergate era, he barely registers on the House Scam-O-Meter.
The most recent censure votes came against two reps who had sex with teenaged house pages (Dan Crane, R. CA., female coupling; Gerry Studds, D. MA., male).
Before that it was one straight out fraud case (Charles Diggs, D. MI.) and one apparent sacrificial lamb from the Koreagate scandal that rocked Congress in the late 1970s (Charles H. Wilson, D. CA.; not to be confused with Good-time Charlie Wilson of Texas who brought us a nice chunk of the Afghanistan wars).
Then there’s a truckload of miscreants who managed to skate past that dreaded head-bowed moment of censure before House colleagues. Part of the hit on Rangel is that since he chaired the Ways and Means Committee he had a special obligation for transparency and financial rules-compliance, hence he deserves a tougher spanking. No doubt. But Newt Gingrich was Speaker of the House, for crying out loud, when he beat the censure rap even though he was found to have violated federal tax law and to have lied to the ethics panel to try and get its complaint dismissed. Gingrich settled his problem with a reprimand and a $300,000 fine. Now he’s running for President.
Then there’s one of the most interesting ethics turnarounds, when the full House rejected a 1978 censure recommendation for a veteran member in favor of a lighter penalty.
That break went to Edward Roybal (D. Ca.), who was found not only to have taken secret cash gifts from Korean agents in the Koreagate scandal, but to also have lied to the House committee when asked about it. The ethics panel recommended that Roybal be censured. But allies, claiming the Hispanic congressman was a victim of discrimination, persuaded a majority to knock it down to a reprimand.
That lesser sanction was approved 219-170 in a House floor vote. For what it’s worth, Roybal’s constituents didn’t seem to mind. He cruised to repeated reelections, retiring in 1992. When he died in 2005, Roybal was hailed as one of Congress’s great battlers for the poor and minorities.
That’s pretty much the way Rangel’s obit will read someday, no matter what happens in the House vote, with the added tag line of how the lion of Harlem was tainted by scandal in his last days. Which should be punishment enough.
Oh, that dramatic caning pictured above? That’s pro-slavery Rep. Preston Brooks (S.C.) laying low abolitionist Sen. Charles Sumner (MA.) in 1856 on the floor of the Senate chambers. Brooks admitted planning the attack, and Sumner never fully recovered. A vote to expel Brooks from the House was defeated.