The subject line of the e-mail said, “Heard anything about Rangel?” And the text of the message delivered: “Rumor is that he steps down as w&m chair tonight. It’s been floating around K St today.”
That one came from a lobbyist at a prominent Washington firm — about a week before a Republican financial lobbyist called POLITICO to report that Charlie Rangel was “toast” as House Ways and Means Committee chairman, to be replaced at any minute by a more junior Democrat on the panel.
A month later, Rangel still has his gavel, and Democratic insiders say that the lobbyist’s rumors — and a new Republican resolution aimed at ousting the chairman — will remain wishful thinking until House Speaker Nancy Pelosi decides that it’s time for Rangel to lose his chairmanship.
And that’s not going to happen, they say, unless the House ethics committee, which has been investigating Rangel for more than a year, comes down hard against him.
In the meantime, the 79-year-old Harlem Democrat, in his 20th term, is as visible as ever in the Capitol’s power corridors. According to a source familiar with his schedule, Rangel has participated in at least 21 meetings with House Democratic leaders in the past month. And insiders say his role — and his demeanor — in those meetings are pretty much the same as they have ever been.
“He weighs in,” says a Democratic leadership aide who asked not be identified discussing private meetings. “He speaks for the little guy.”
Democratic Rep. Eliot Engel, who represents a New York district that borders Rangel’s, said he’s not surprised to see Rangel active despite an ethics committee investigation hanging over his head.
“He’s got a role to play,” said Engel, a member of the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health. “Charlie is not one to not get into the fray.”
And Pelosi is not one to keep him out.
The speaker and the chairman are longtime friends, but she has plenty of other reasons to protect him. There’s been no legal or ethical judgment against him; dislodging him would touch off a contentious scramble for his gavel. And Pelosi has to worry about her standing with the Congressional Black Caucus, a group Rangel helped found.
But the status quo presents an irresistible opportunity for Republicans, who stand poised to score political points whether Rangel goes or stays.
As a caricature of the power-drunk Washington tax writer who refuses to pay his own share, he is portrayed by the GOP as a symbol of Democratic arrogance and a backtrack on Pelosi’s promise to “drain the swamp” in Washington. As a deposed chairman, he would represent a victory for the beleaguered Republican Party.
Rangel has admitted failing to report to the Internal Revenue Service income from Dominican rental property for two decades. In addition, he is accused of improperly using official letterhead to solicit contributions for an earmark-created education center named for him — and of violating New York City regulations by maintaining multiple rent-controlled apartments, including one for a campaign office.
In August, he restated his personal finances, revealing previously unreported assets and income of hundreds of thousands of dollars. He originally reported a range of assets of roughly between $500,000 and $1.3 million. The amended filing showed roughly $1 million to $2.5 million.
That filing has given the GOP the chance to take another swing at Rangel. This week, Rep. John Carter (R-Texas) will introduce another “privileged” resolution aimed at ousting Rangel from his chairmanship.
“There remains the question of whether these latest disclosure violations may be coupled with similar tax-reporting violations,” Carter said. “If so, this case could bring further discredit to the House for its failure to act for months, and soon to be years, on end.”
Carter’s effort will meet the same fate as previous GOP attempts to dethrone Rangel unless a substantial number of Democrats cross over and vote in favor of it — and nobody expects that to happen.
Rank-and-file Democrats could turn against Rangel if they come to believe he’s a barrier to their reelection bids, and leaders have taken care not to make him the public point man for health care reform or anything else.
“They ain’t putting him out front, that’s for sure,” said a former Democratic leadership aide who is now a lobbyist.
But several House Democrats insisted last week that the National Republican Congressional Committee hasn’t yet succeeded in making Rangel’s problems stick to them.
“What blowback?” asked Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.). “We don’t pay any attention to it.”
Still, members do pay attention to their war chests, and at some point they may grow weary of having one of their most powerful chairmanships in the hands of a man who’s spending so much on lawyers that he can’t contribute to their campaigns.
In the first six months of the 2008 election cycle, Rangel’s political action committees gave nearly $700,000 to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and to some 40 Democratic campaigns. In the first six months of the 2010 cycle, they gave just $141,000 to the DCCC and six Democratic campaigns. In the same period, the PACs spent $829,800 on attorneys — more than five times as much.
The diversion couldn’t come at a worse time for House Democrats, who have raised about $7 million less over the first eight months of this year than they did over the same period in 2007.
“This is clearly a problem for Democrats, and if we start to reach a point when Democrats do not accept [Rangel’s] contributions, we will know that his political impact has crossed the Rubicon,” said David Wasserman, House editor for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
Asked if he’s worried about losing stature with Democrats, Rangel said flatly: “No.”
But Rangel knows as well as anyone the connection between campaign contributions and political success in the House. In a 2007 interview with CQ, Rangel lamented his loss to then-Rep. Tony Coelho in a 1986 race to become the Democratic whip — and attributed it to Coelho’s ability to fund lawmakers’ campaigns from his perch as chairman of the DCCC.
“I had never been so goddamn naive,” he said. “I came to Washington as an experienced politician. How did I miss Coelho’s contribution to members?”
And for all the resolutions and rumormongering, it’s not at all clear that Republicans or the financial services industry would be happy to see Rangel go.
The next Democrat in line at Ways and Means is California Rep. Pete Stark, a strident liberal with a distinctly pro-tax record. He voted against the 2008 Wall Street bailout and the stimulus package, saying that the bills helped banks at the expense of taxpayers.
After Stark comes Michigan Rep. Sander Levin and Washington Rep. Jim McDermott, neither of whom is beloved by the industry. The name of Georgia Rep. John Lewis — fourth in line for the job — has been floated, perhaps as a way for Pelosi to allay the concerns of the Congressional Black Caucus.
The best-case scenario for the industry, say lobbyists, would be Massachusetts Rep. Richard Neal, who’s known for his expertise in tax issues. But Democratic aides say Pelosi may be unwilling to skip that far down the chain of seniority.
“The downtown community naively thinks Richie Neal could get the gavel,” said a former Republican staffer who now works as a tax lobbyist. “As much as I would like to believe that would happen, I don’t see how she gets past Levin, McDermott or Lewis.”