Closing ethical lapses in Congress

Posted: Thursday, October 15, 2009

The following editorial appeared in the Miami Herald:

Reports that House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel of New York leases four rent-controlled apartments in his district and uses one of those units as a campaign office space first surfaced in July of last year. It was news because this is a possible violation of local housing rules.

Some might see this as small potatoes. Rangel certainly did, dismissing it as a matter of small consequence, but in the ensuing 15 months the complaints of ethical violations have piled up.

The latest astonishing disclosure was made by Rangel himself: He somehow forgot to list on a financial disclosure form various assets worth more than $500,000, including an investment account and a credit union account.

The most serious of the multiplying allegations against the congressman is that he failed to pay taxes on $75,000 in rental income on a beach house in the Dominican Republic. As chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, Rangel should know the rules as well as anyone. His excuse is that he thought he was exempt because of the way the deal was structured.

When Republicans controlled the House, Rep. Nancy Pelosi took every chance she had to accuse the GOP of fostering a "culture of corruption." That helped the Democrats win control in 2006, but now the shoe is on the other foot.

Democrats have managed through straight party-line votes to defeat GOP efforts to censure Rangel, and the House Ethics Committee is taking its sweet time finishing a probe that has dragged for months.

Meanwhile, the problem continues to fester and Rep. Rangel remains one of the most powerful Democrats on Capitol Hill, even under the taint of scandal.

Corruption and its close kin, arrogance and hypocrisy, are chronic failings that afflict all political parties. In the Senate, the latest disclosures about Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., over extramarital relations with the wife of a former aide have raised serious legal questions involving secret payments to the aide. Ensign, once an outspoken advocate of "family values," has resisted calls for his resignation.

This is not fair to Americans, who have a right to demand that Congress take ethical standards seriously and that members play by the rules - especially when they're the ones who make the rules.

For the most part, the burden of enforcing ethical standards fairly and impartially falls on the party in power. Pelosi should recall that she promised to take a zero-tolerance attitude toward corruption when she became speaker of the House.

Americans expect her to keep that pledge.

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