What's in Store for Charlie Rangel -- and the Democrats

The ethics subcommittee investigating Rep. Charlie Rangel has recommended a reprimand for the Harlem Democrat, who was charged Thursday on 13 counts of ethics violations. A different subcommittee will try Rangel in September and recommend a punishment, which will be voted on by the entire House.

A reprimand, essentially a public shaming that would not affect Rangel's ability to run for re-election or sit on committees, is the least serious of three punishment options for House members. In the most serious cases, members can be expelled from Congress. They can also be censured, which is similar to a reprimand but includes a public chastisement from the Speaker of the House. MSNBC reports that in the history of Congress, only eight members have been reprimanded. The most recent reprimand was given to Republican Speaker Newt Gingrich in 1997 for various tax law violations.

As minimal as that may sound, "it's serious business," says Thomas E. Mann, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institute. "It's everything to a politician! It's hard for me to imagine a circumstance under which he would feel worse."

Craig Holman, a government affairs lobbyist with Public Citizen, expects that the House may choose a censure over a reprimand. "It's really a public scolding, but on one level, it's, 'OK, you violated the rules, don't do it again,'" Holman says. "The other level is 'Oh, you really screwed up. Do something like that again and who knows what will happen.'" 

Since Rangel is 80 years old and has already served 40 years in the House, now will be an opportune time for him to slip out without seeking re-election.

"I bet he wishes he would have brought his career to an end a little earlier," Mann says. "Now you're going to see great difficulty with retaining the Rangel Center" -- the public service center at the City College of New York for which Rangel's accused of soliciting donations and making earmarks. "It will take on a certain amount of shame. I don't know how it will be resolved. He's a very well liked member -- a good guy, serious, sort of hardworking, and yet he became a little too comfortable and cavalier and now he's paying a huge price for it. And he may make his party pay a huge price as well."

Rangel himself may slip out of the public memory after a decade or two, but his scandal has the potential to tip the midterm elections -- thus making a more permanent stamp on Congress than his own fleeting embarrassment. His trial will occur during the four weeks the House will convene after the August recess and before its target adjournment date of October 8. This period will provide high-profile campaign fodder for both parties. While Democrats are hoping to push through big legislation that they can tout to their constituents, Republicans are looking for every opportunity to block the majority's agenda. The Rangel hearing will provide a welcome distraction for the GOP and a convenient line on Democrats' profligate, careless treatment of public funds.   

Holman thinks that drama on the House floor will be minimal. "Members on both sides of the aisle have an interest in keeping this as low key as possible," he says. "Republicans and Democrats are going to face scandals of some sort over the years, and nobody wants to get drawn through the mud."

In campaigns, though, these incentives will not apply. Three-quarters of voters in the 2006 midterm elections said that corruption and scandal made them more likely to elect Democrats to the House. Rooting out this corruption has been the focal point of Nancy Pelosi's tenure as speaker -- "draining the swamp," as she says. She created the Office for Congressional Ethics in order to keep an eye on the House Ethics Committee.

According to Holman, Rangel would not currently be under investigation if Pelosi had not cracked down on ethics procedures. While Pelosi deserves credit for this, Holman says, it's more likely to weigh against her -- and the Democrats -- in the fall.

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Nicole Allan is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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