Last week, the House ethics panel voted to expand its investigation into Charlie Rangel’s finances for the third time since the probe began. The Harlem congressman has been plagued by numerous ethics problems, to the point that he even asked the ethics committee to look into behavior last year in an attempt to save face—this following the Republicans’ attempt to censure him.
Things have been bad for Rangel since the beginning of the probe, and they’ve only gotten worse. He’s faced questions about the acquisition of several rent-controlled apartments (at below-market rates) from a campaign contributor. It’s also come up that he solicited donations from business interests on congressional stationery for a public center at the City College of New York. The center happens to be named after him and was in part funded by a $1.9 million congressional earmark he secured. Rangel also failed to report $75,000 in rental income from a villa he owns in the Dominican Republic. And most recently he admitted failing to report an additional half a million dollars in income. Ultimately, Rangel’s behavior may lead to his removal from Congress, whether at the hands of his party’s leadership or through the ire of his constituents. Even if he doesn’t lose his seat, he’ll have to resign his chairmanship if the ethics committee indicts him.
Republicans have tried several times to have Rangel removed from his chairmanship of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, but they aren’t the only ones gunning for his head. Rangel’s former campaign manager, Vince Morgan, recently announced his plans to take a run at Rangel’s seat—just at a time when Rangel’s campaign contributions are dwindling. Rangel has raised only $685,050 in the first half of 2009, which means it’s unlikely that he’ll come close to the six million he raised the year before. Harlem was already grumbling about Rangel’s support for last year’s rezoning plan, which some residents warned would be the end of Harlem as they know it. With Morgan, they may get a chance to show just how unhappy with Rangel they really are.
Rangel’s problems are the Democratic Party’s problems. After riding to a majority on a wave of popular anger of Republican corruption scandals, the Democrats face the possibility of going into 2010 with a corruption narrative of their own. Even the liberal New York Times has called for Rangel’s removal. But things aren't as simple as that. Rangel isn’t just a 40-year incumbent, he’s a reliably progressive vote, and under the Democrats seniority system, he would automatically be replaced by the rather unpredictable Pete Stark of California, who has a record of making the kind of controversial statements about blacks and Jews. (Stark once called George H.W. Bush’s Health and Human Services Secretary, Louis Wade Sullivan, a “disgrace to his race.”) Finally, if the Democratic leadership pushes for Rangel’s removal, they risk the ire of the Congressional Black Caucus, especially if Rep. John Conyers is somehow ensnared in the Michigan corruption scandal that led to his wife pleading guilty to bribery.
So Rangel isn’t the only one stuck in an increasingly untenable situation. If the ethics committee indicts him, he’ll have to give up his chairmanship. If Democrats remove him, they lose a key negotiator at a time when they are trying to push through President Obama’s signature piece of (health care) legislation. And if they don’t push for him to step down, Dems can expect to see Rangel’s face, and words like “culture of corruption” on GOP mailings and television commercials all through 2010.
In his autobiography, Rangel wrote that he “hasn’t had a bad day since” the Battle of Kunu-Ri during the Korean War, when he heroically led his unit out from behind enemy lines despite being seriously injured. But it looks like someone, either the Democrats or Rangel, may have bad day coming.
Adam Serwer is a writing fellow at the American Prospect. His writing has appeared in the New York Daily News, The Village Voice and Utne. Follow him on Twitter.