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Rangel Case Goes Far Beyond Letterhead

Anyone who knows Rep. Charlie Rangel at all, and who has half a heart, will take little comfort from the ethics charges against him and the potential trial ahead — potential because there are still several avenues for him to avoid the public trial before it is slated to begin in September.

[IMGCAP(1)]The New York Democrat is a nice, affable and intelligent man who has made many strong contributions to key public policy issues from taxes to trade. To watch a long and productive Congressional career take this kind of turn is truly unfortunate. But let’s judge Rangel by the standard he himself set back in 2008, when the story emerged that he had used his Congressional letterhead to raise funds for a Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service at City College of New York.

At the time, Rangel said to reporters, “I don’t get involved in some subjective stuff. I want to get involved in: Did I violate the spirit of the law and any ethical standards that we have in the House of Representatives?”

Reading the bill of particulars from the House ethics investigative subcommittee, the answer is clearly yes.

Rangel did far more than use his Congressional letterhead. His staff prepared a list of potential donors and sent out official letters soliciting funds for the center. Rangel met repeatedly with potential funders, including CEOs, foundation presidents and company lobbyists, to ask for money.

The potential and real links between Congressional action and providing donations were palpable, coming as the solicitations did from the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. One had to cringe reading the New York Times summary of one charge: “In one of the more important allegations against Mr. Rangel, the committee charged him with ethics violations for his solicitation of Eugene Isenberg, the chief executive of Nabors Industries, an oil company that was seeking a tax break from the Ways and Means Committee when he pledged $1 million to the Rangel Center.

“Mr. Rangel met with Mr. Isenberg and his lobbyist to discuss the tax break, which the congressman previously opposed, in February 2007 — the day it was being considered by the Ways and Means Committee.

“The tax break ultimately passed, with Mr. Rangel’s vote, saving Nabors more than half a billion dollars. Eleven days after the meeting, City College cashed a $100,000 check from Mr. Isenberg.”

There are, of course, many more charges in the 41-page bill of particulars. Given what is there, it is striking that the apparent recommendation from the subcommittee was a reprimand for Rangel, a formal penalty but the least serious of three available in the House; expulsion and censure are the others.

Even more striking is that Rangel did not jump at the chance to embrace that relatively mild penalty and move on. Why? I have to believe that Rangel in his heart is convinced that he took these actions not for personal gain but nobler motives, that there was no quid pro quo, and that others have done the same thing or worse and not been punished.

True, in soliciting funds for a university center, Rangel did not ask for campaign money or personal cash (other charges in the bill of particulars suggest something more directly pecuniary).

Let’s simply look at the Isenberg/Nabors case. A company CEO and its lobbyist meet with the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee to discuss an amendment that would provide a major tax break for the company — an amendment the chairman had previously opposed. The chairman supports the amendment — and 11 days later, the CEO sends a $100,000 check for the Rangel Center to City College.

Charlie Rangel no doubt really believes there are no connections here. Does anybody else? Actually, one person I can think of: Justice Anthony Kennedy, whose breathtakingly naive views of the connection between money and politics would also lead him into the La-La Land of seeing no quid pro quo. This is not a campaign contribution, to be sure, but the same dynamic occurs daily with campaign cash and earmarks, amendments and other Congressional actions.

Rangel got no money for himself, but the notion of a sitting lawmaker soliciting for self-aggrandizement and ego promotion is just as obnoxious, and the fact that others have done it and still do it, from the McConnell Center at the University of Louisville to the Murtha Educational Center at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, is no excuse. I will repeat what I have written before: It is high time for Congress to enact a new ethics rule flatly prohibiting Members and their staffs from soliciting in any way, including being present at fundraisers, for anything named after them, whether a bridge, a building, a roadway or an academic center. Monuments should be reserved for the long-gone, not the currently serving.

There is a broader issue here, as the reference to Justice Kennedy and his embarrassingly misguided reasoning in the Citizens United case suggests. No one can be on Capitol Hill for any length of time and be blind to the daily interactions between lawmakers and their staffs discussing official actions or taking them and those they are soliciting for money or who are giving it to them, whether for their campaigns or other purposes.

Lawmakers are obsessed with money, spending every spare minute they can on “call time,” scurrying off the official grounds to places nearby where they can make calls to raise money. People whose lives or careers can be affected deeply by Congressional actions, whether in the form of tax breaks, contracts, earmarks or even mentions in the Congressional Record, know full well that money buys access and provides insurance against competitors trying to tilt the playing field by buying their own favored access.

If the Rangel trial goes forward, there is a good chance that the ethics committee and the House will up the ante, moving from reprimand to censure. I hope Rangel will act to avoid that possibility.

That is probably more likely than Congress, much less the Supreme Court, doing anything meaningful to reduce the corrosiveness that fundraising of all sorts has created in our polity.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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