Two, tiny, round holes, bored into the middle panel of a wooden door on the second floor of the U.S. Capitol near the House chamber could reveal much about this fall’s midterm elections.
The double-doored entrance-way is semi-circular. The entablature above the doors boldly proclaims “Ways and Means,’ scripted in sharp, gold paint.
Of course, “Ways and Means” means little to those off Capitol Hill. But in the Washington lexicon, the term “Ways and Means” signals power, control and dominion over fortune.
Article 1, Section 7 of the U.S. Constitution bestows this place such influence. “All bills for raising Revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives,” it says. A “bill for raising Revenue” is Constitutional language for a tax bill. There is no tax committee in the House. But this is Washington, where few things are as they seem. So the panel that scripts the U.S. tax code is known as Ways and Means, as it determines a “way” and a “mean” to pay for things.
Only three, full, House committees hold coveted office space so close to the House chamber. “Location, location, location” is the mantra in real estate. That axiom applies on Capitol Hill, too. The proximity of these three panels to the House floor reflects their power and standing in the Congressional hierarchy.
You’ll find the office suite of the House Rules Committee up on the Capitol’s third floor. The name of Rules Committee Chairwoman Louise Slaughter (D-NY) is embossed on the door. The offices of the House Appropriations Committee are down on the second floor. That door boasts the name of Chairman Dave Obey (D-WI).
The Ways and Means Committee hovel steps from the Democratic cloakroom used to bear the nameplate of its chairman, too.
But that all changed back in March. And to date, the name of the new chairman is mysteriously absent. The two, tiny round holes in the door are all that remains of a wooden nameplate that once hung there.
“Charles B. Rangel,” the nameplate said.
Of course, all hell has broken loose since Rangel relinquished the gavel of the Ways and Means Committee back in March. The House Ethics Committee formally admonished the New York Democrat for allowing a private corporation to pay for two trips to the Caribbean. A firestorm erupted and Rangel stepped aside from his leadership post. Meantime, the Ethics Committee continued to probe Rangel on a host of other issues, ranging from unpaid taxes to potentially illegal use of Congressional resources for fundraising purposes. Late last week, the Ethics panel announced it believed Rangel did wrong and it was forming a special subcommittee to put the Congressman on trial.
In the interim, no nameplate hangs from the holes drilled into the Ways and Means doorway, despite Rep. Sander Levin (D-MI) taking the helm of the committee months ago.
“I respectfully request a leave of absence from my duties and responsibilities as chairmanship of the Committee on Ways and Means Committee until such a time as the Committee on Standards completes its findings on the review currently underway,” Rangel wrote in a March letter addressed to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA).
Rangel’s letter implied he was temporarily stepping away from his perch on the panel. But according to House rules, there’s nothing “temporary” about Rangel’s departure from the chairmanship. Either you are or aren’t the chair. And the committee website proudly displays a picture of Levin and describes him as “Chairman.” Yet the day Rangel stepped aside, he later told Pelosi he would “entertain a leave of absence.”
I challenged Rangel on the House parliamentarian’s interpretation that his resignation was final. Sure, Rangel could come back as chair of the committee. But that would have to be cleared on the floor and get past the Republicans.
“I wrote what I meant and I said what I mean. If there’s anyone who needs clarification, it’s the speaker, not you,” Rangel lectured me.
But those tiny holes in the Ways and Means doorway speak volumes about the Congressional purgatory Rangel now occupies. Democrats are nervous about how a full-blown ethics trial right before the midterm elections could imperil the party. Democrats wanted to avoid this at all costs and hoped Rangel would agree to sanctions long ago. But negotiations broke down. So the ethics trial forges ahead.
You can only imagine Pelosi wishing she could enlist the services of Leonardo DiCaprio in his latest film “Inception.” DiCaprio plays a man who can enter people’s dreams to plant or extract ideas. I’m sure the speaker would like to plant in Rangel’s dream the idea of accepting punishment and saving Democrats a bloody ethics debacle.
Rangel’s been in Congress for nearly 40 years. Perhaps that explains his defiant streak. Recall his argument about his “temporary” departure from the Ways and Means post.
However, Rangel has also been known to rapidly reverse himself.
Last Thursday, Rangel said he looked forward to the upcoming ethics skirmish.
“It gives me the opportunity to respond to friends and constituents who’ve been supporting me for years,” Rangel declared.
But return to last March.
After a half-hour, late-night meeting with Pelosi, Rangel emerged from the conclave to gave an unequivocal “yes!” when asked by reporters if he remained chair of Ways and Means.
I then asked if he would still be the chairman the next day.
“Well, I’m 79-years-old. I can’t make promises at my age,” Rangel responded.
Reporters continued to dog him if he would remain the head of the panel.
“You bet your life on it,” Rangel said. “And I don’t lie to the press.”
Less than 13 hours later, the Congressman reversed himself.
Rangel called a 9 am press conference to announce he was stepping down. In fact, Rangel started the briefing at 8:57 am. He took no questions and left before 9 am. Barely any reporters even made it because the haste in which Rangel scheduled the news conference and the brevity of his remarks.
One wonders if Rangel could reverse himself again and avoid the ethics spectacle.
But it’s easier to explain Rangel’s defiance and determination to head to a public airing of his dirty laundry. Rangel’s determination made him a survivor. He was wounded in Korea by shrapnel in sub-zero temperatures during the Battle of Kunu-ri. Other U.S. service members died or were taken prisoner. But despite being a private, Rangel beat the odds and led many of his colleagues to safety.
Rangel received the Purple Heart.
Democrats are on the ropes this November. Democrats want to know if Rangel can swallow his pride and take one for the team? Or will his personal survivor’s instinct help inflict electoral losses on his Democratic colleagues.
“…And I Haven’t Had a Bad Day Since,” is the title of Rangel’s 2007 autobiography. Rangel says his last bad day was the firefight in Kunu-ri. When he surrendered his gavel in March, I asked the Congressman if that qualified as a ‘bad day.’
“I haven’t had a bad day yet,” Rangel laughed. “But it’s been close!”
The question is if that bad day still looms ahead for Rangel. Perhaps a loss in the September primary. An embittered ethics trial. A reprimand, censure or even expulsion from the House.
Given the circumstances, it’s doubtful the name “Charles B. Rangel” will ever return to the door of the Ways and Means Committee suite near the House floor.
There is however, one scenario that could spell a “bad day” for Democrats and Rangel.
It’s a scenario where the two, tiny, round holes in the Ways and Means doorway will no longer be visible. That’s because the holes would support the nameplate of Rep. Dave Camp (R-MI), currently the leading Republican on the Ways and Means Committee.
A Camp nameplate means Republicans won control of the House. And that spells a very bad day for Rangel and House Democrats alike.