Pelosi: “Drain the swamp” means to turn this Congress into the most honest and open Congress in history. That’s my pledge — that is what I intend to do. - November 8m 2006
Why is House Speaker Nancy Pelosi refusing a growing chorus of calls to drop the hammer on ethics-challenged Charlie Rangel?
Because, at the moment, doing nothing creates a lot less trouble for Pelosi than doing anything, current and former House aides tell POLITICO.
Stripping the Harlem Democrat of his chairmanship of the House Ways and Means Committee would force Pelosi to make a series of unpalatable decisions about Rangel’s successor that would create a ruckus in the Democratic caucus.
It would also infuriate the Congressional Black Caucus, which is still sore over Pelosi’s decision to strip committees from former Louisiana Rep. Bill Jefferson – even after Jefferson had been found with a wad of tainted cash in his kitchen.
“Unless they find $90,000 in his freezer, like they did with Jefferson, we’re going to wait [for the outcome of a House ethics probe],” said a Democratic aide familiar with Pelosi’s thinking on the matter.
Staffers say the speaker has been so focused on the health care battle that she simply hasn’t devoted much time to Rangel’s recent troubles – and there’s no push among House Democrats to heed the fire-Rangel cries of Republicans, the New York Times, Washington Post and Buffalo News.
“She hasn’t even spoken to the congressman about this latest episode,” said a close Rangel associate, referring to recent published reports that the 78-year-old Rangel underreported his assets by hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“The speaker is totally behind him, and she told him that the last few times they have spoken,” the person added.
Rangel has told supporters he’s committed to running for re-election next year and plans to run again in 2012 – when he’s 82 — health permitting.
Pelosi’s inaction isn’t without risks.
Rangel’s troubles, coupled with the equally embarrassing ethics problems of another Pelosi-allied Old Bull, Rep. Jack Murtha (D-Penn.), could damage the Democratic brand in the midterms.
If Pelosi were to supplant Rangel, she’d face the prospect of choosing from a unappetizing menu of potential replacements at the Ways and Means helm.
“There are not a lot of good choices for her on that committee,” said a leadership aide.
The next Democrat in line would be Pete Stark, an outspoken 77-year-old liberal with a firebrand reputation and a penchant for intemperate cracks – like calling Blue Dog Democrats “brain dead.”
Next up: Michigan Rep. Sander Levin, also 77, and Washington Rep. Jim McDermott, 72, who are not considered favored choices of Pelosi based on their ages and temperaments.
The two most desirable substitutes from leadership’s perspective, staffers say, are Georgia Rep. John Lewis, 69, the civil rights hero, whose appointment would assuage Black Caucus anger at Rangel’s ouster; and Massachusetts Rep. Richard Neal, 60, a tax expert who is a favorite of his colleagues.
In late August, the slowest news period of the year, Rangel filed updated financial disclosure reports showing he failed to report more than $660,000 in assets during 2007, a potential violation of House ethics rules.
The ethics panel has already spent a year peering into Rangel’s use of several rent-stabilized apartments in a luxury Harlem apartment complex, his failure to pay all taxes on a Dominican Republic vacation villa, and his use of Congressional letterhead to raise funds for the Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service at City College in New York City.
The committee recently broadened the investigation to include Caribbean trips taken by Rangel and four other lawmakers to determine if they complied with a ban on corporate-funded travel.
The GOP, dogged by scandals when it had the majority, has pounced on the Rangel situation to level hypocrisy charges at Pelosi – who famously promised to “drain the swamp” of Congressional corruption.
House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), who has already asked for Pelosi to shelve Rangel, dashed off a letter to the chairman calling for him to fall on sword for the sake of the House.
“As chairman of the powerful House committee, entrusted with the responsibility of writing the tax laws that affect every law-abiding American citizen, you, along with the speaker and other leaders of the majority party, have an obligation to help set the pace when it comes to standards of official conduct,” Boehner wrote to Rangel.
“By relinquishing the gavel voluntarily while the Ethics panel does its work, you would demonstrate your respect for this obligation.”
Rangel’s office, in response, suggested that Boehner’s letter could “undermine” the committee’s work.
“Congress has a comprehensive, bipartisan process for reviewing any allegations made against a Member — the House Ethics Committee. Chairman Rangel himself initiated the request for the Committee to review the allegations made against him,” a Rangel spokesman said.
“Any action by the minority leader or others to prejudge the outcome of that bipartisan process would unfairly undermine the work of the Ethics Committee.”
Yet for all his public defiance, Rangel is said to be deeply disturbed by the charges and their effect on his four-decade career of public service.
“It bothers the hell out of him, it hurts,” said a friend. “I mean, he sees himself as the guy who helped push through stuff like the Earned Income Tax Credit – and now people are saying he’s unfit to serve.”