Rules on Homes Won’t Change

Posted July 11, 2008 at 6:33pm

Despite a spate of revelations in recent weeks that House and Senate lawmakers received special deals on mortgages and rental agreements, it appears unlikely Members will be required to divulge the financial details of their homes anytime soon, with little momentum in either chamber to revisit ethics rules before next year.

“Any suggestions to change the rules will be addressed in the 111th Congress,” said Nadeam Elshami, Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) spokesman.

Although both House Members and Senators must file annual financial disclosures listing mortgages on homes or properties they own, current ethics rules exempt lawmakers from having to list the details of their primary residence.

There is no requirement for Members to report the details of leased property.

The New York Times reported last week that Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) leases four rent- controlled apartments in his district and uses one of those units as a campaign office space. The newspaper questioned whether the lawmaker’s use of four such units undermines the intent of local housing regulations.

Rangel defended the arrangement Friday, arguing that he is a long-term tenant of the building and that his relatively low rent is in accordance with rent control laws.

“I pay the maximum legal rent, and in fact, would be violating the law if I paid more. When my family moved in, apartments were not scarce in Harlem, and rents were relatively low, including those in Lenox Terrace,” Rangel said. “Because I have not moved the rents have increased only incrementally each year, and therefore have remained low, especially compared to today’s ‘downtown’ rentals.”

While Rangel also defended his use of a fourth apartment on a different floor from his residence as an office, he later amended his statement to add that he would review the lease with the landlord.

“The office mentioned in the story is a small apartment, which I use for working and to make fundraising calls,” Rangel said. “When the apartment was rented about 10 years ago, there was no question about whether it was appropriate in view of the fact there were — and still are — other offices in the building. I am looking into that arrangement with the landlord, and if necessary, I will make a change.”

A spokesman for House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) said the matter is an issue for the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct to address.

“The news stories about Mr. Rangel’s situation obviously raise questions and the ethics committee would be the appropriate venue to address those questions,” spokesman Michael Steel said.

Sen. Norm Coleman’s (R-Minn.) living arrangements also came under scrutiny recently following a National Journal report that revealed he was renting a Capitol Hill apartment from a prominent Minnesota Republican operative contracted with his Senate campaign.

The Minnesota lawmaker acknowledged he had not paid four $600 rent payments at one point, in part because checks for two of those months were never cashed, and another month he paid with an exchange of used furniture.

In the wake of media reports last month that Countrywide Financial provided both Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Chairman Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) and Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) with special mortgage packages, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) sought an amendment to the housing bill that would have required Members to report the details of their primary homes.

Dodd and Conrad both denied wrongdoing in the incident and said they did not seek special treatment in their mortgage deals.

But the amendment was ruled nongermane to the housing measure, forcing Cornyn, vice chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee, to shelve the proposal until he can find a new vehicle.

“From Sen. Cornyn’s perspective, it’s a simple and common-sense step that the Senate should take to strengthen transparency and bring more accountability to the Congress,” Cornyn spokesman Brian Walsh said.