As lawmakers return to the Capitol for the fall’s epic battle over health care reform, Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) appeared likely to retain his chairmanship of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, despite new allegations about his tangled finances and fresh calls for the Harlem Democrat to relinquish his leadership post.
Although Rangel has not been formally charged with any wrongdoing, he has been under investigation by a House ethics committee for nearly a year, following published reports alleging a broad array of financial improprieties.
These include allegations that the chairman of the House’s top tax-writing committee failed to report income derived from a beachfront villa he owns in the Dominican Republic; falsely listed a Washington, D.C. residence as his primary address when he was living in rent-stabilized apartments in New York City; used congressional letterhead for fundraising purposes; and helped a wealthy donor to a school bearing Rangel’s name establish a lucrative tax shelter in Bermuda.
Nearly a year after the New York Times called on Rangel to step aside as chairman of Ways and Means – and House Democrats successfully blocked a resolution introduced by Republicans to censure him – the capital is hearing fresh calls for Rangel to turn over his gavel while the various ethics investigations remain underway.
These came in the wake of Rangel’s acknowledgment, in updated financial disclosure forms filed late last month, that he failed to report more than $660,000 in assets during 2007. The assets included a credit-union checking account worth up to half-a-million dollars, stock in PepsiCo, some mutual fund investments and a handful of vacant lots in southern New Jersey.
In an editorial, The Washington Post echoed the Times, urging Rangel to step down from his chairmanship, and congressional Republicans swiftly followed suit.
“I have long considered you a friend, and I still do,” House Minority Leader John Boehner wrote to Rangel on Sept. 4. “But friends are not infallible… [and] 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.”
But a spokesman for Rangel, who has steadfastly denied any wrongdoing, rejected these calls for the chairman to relinquish his leadership post, saying any such move would “prejudge” the findings of the ethics committee and thereby “undermine” its work.
First elected to the House in 1970, the raspy-voiced Rangel drew early public notice as a member of the House Judiciary Committee during that panel’s Watergate impeachment hearings against President Nixon.
In addition to a long string of legislative accomplishments, mostly focused on domestic programs for the poor and disadvantaged, the Harlem Democrat has also earned a reputation as a shoot-from-the-lip public speaker, sometimes forced to retract or apologize for provocative comments.
As chair of Ways and Means, however, Rangel has wielded exceptional clout. His committee was one of three in the House to put forward a version of health care reform legislation before the summer recess. Rangel’s version was notable for its proposal to raise income taxes on Americans earning over $350,000 a year in order to pay for the expected trillion-dollar cost of health care reform. Because the question of how to finance the various reforms is central to the health care debate, Rangel is expected to figure prominently in that debate.
Still, the chairman is seen by some, both in and out of his party, as a liability.
“There seems be almost three-quarters of a million dollars failed to be reported,” said Rep. John Carter (R-TX) of the latest financial problem to embarrass Rangel. “ That's a lot of forgotten bank accounts and a lot of forgotten pieces of land and a lot of forgotten assets. And it's a little too much to think that it's just an ‘oops.’”
Former Rep. Martin Frost (D-TX), who served thirteen terms alongside Rangel, predicted he would remain in his leadership post at least until the ethics committee delivers its findings.
"This is not your run-of-the-mill congressman,” Frost told FOX News. “This is somebody's who's been a leader in civil rights and economic justice, served in Congress for thirty-eight years, [and who is] generally regarded as a very serious member and a good member….The people in the business community have a high regard for Charlie, even if they don’t agree with him on everything.”
At the same time, Frost said, the mounting allegations of financial impropriety will not immediately disappear. “The failure to report large assets is a problem; everybody understands that.”
Rangel has indicated he plans to run for re-election in 2010, and again in 2012, when he will turn eighty-two.
But Stu Rothenberg, the non-partisan analyst who authors “The Rothenberg Political Report,” pointed to the steady trickle of damaging stories and their timing – smack in the middle of the health care battle – as the key factors in the chairman’s future.
“It is developing in a very uncomfortable way for Democrats,” Rothenberg told FOX News. “Little by little, more information seems to come out and it's possible that it could seriously, seriously hurt the congressman's career.
“He's at a tax-writing committee when the administration may have to talk about raising revenue to pay for health care,” Rothenberg continued. “So he is in an unusually important position and taking the criticism that he is now taking is a major problem for him, but also for his party.”
James Rosen joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in 1999. He currently serves as the chief Washington correspondent and hosts the online show "The Foxhole."