Outside editorial: Keeping a clean House

Posted: Monday, November 22, 2010

The following editorial first appeared in the Miami Herald:

Rep. Charlie Rangel's end game is fast approaching. He's been found guilty on 11 counts of breaking House rules by a committee of his legislative peers and faces sanctions that could range from a reprimand to expulsion from Congress.

Rangel could have served as a poster child for the angry-voter movement that had incumbents running scared this fall. Throughout this sordid saga, the longtime Democratic congressman has shown poor judgment, combative behavior and contempt for the public good.

Rangel was found guilty of failing to report hundreds of thousands of dollars in income and assets, improper use of several rent-controlled apartments, questionable fundraising efforts for a college center in New York that bears his name, and failing to pay taxes on property he owns in the Dominican Republic.

This from a legislator who's supposed to be an expert on tax matters. Despite his long record of service, it's impossible to feel sorry for the 80-year-old lawmaker - he asked for it.

"If I can't get my dignity back here, then fire your best shot in getting rid of me through expulsion," Mr. Rangel thundered in August when some Democrats asked him to quit.

Instead, he insisted on a trial, but remained defiant to the end. First, he begged for a last-minute delay because he had run out of money to pay his lawyers. Then he indignantly walked out when the panel refused. Then he complained that the panel had acted despite his absence.

On Thursday, the panel will recommend proper punishment for Rangel. The full House will vote on it afterward. The betting is that it will be limited to censure or reprimand, but Rangel's bizarre behavior surely raises questions about his continued fitness for office.

Whatever the outcome, Rangel has taken a long fall from his once lofty perch as chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee. The Democratic leadership was initially slow to remove him from the chairmanship, but even so the process is a vindication for Speaker Nancy Pelosi's decision to empower the Ethics Committee and make good on a promise to "drain the swamp."

With Republicans poised to regain control of the House, it's important to note that no party is immune from corrupt practices and shoddy behavior. For proof, look no further than the criminal trial underway in a Texas courtroom against discredited former Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who ruled the roost for years when the GOP controlled the House of Representatives.

The likely incoming speaker, Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, would do well to ignore calls from within his own party to downplay the focus on ethics or even do away with the Office of Congressional Ethics created by Pelosi.

The Rangel trial restores a measure of credibility to the House by showing that lawmakers are capable, albeit reluctantly, of enforcing their own rules. To weaken enforcement would undermine that credibility and immediately raise questions about Boehner's commitment to running a clean House.

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