Despite predictions he would be swiftly abandoned by his colleagues, House Democrats are shrugging off Rep. Charles Rangel’s ethical scandal as they head for the exits for a six-week summer break.
At least for now.
Most Democrats are suggesting that they’ll let Rangel go through his upcoming ethics trial, taking a wait-and-see attitude as the ethics procedures unfold.
There seem to be three key reasons Rangel is surviving the initial ambush of bad publicity without a true drive to oust him from Congress.
First, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other party leaders advising Democrats to stay calm – lawmakers say the dearth of calls for Rangel’s head reflects a mix of respect for both him personally and the institution. They see a veteran member of Congress, a war hero who has served the nation and Harlem in Washington, and don’t want to “jump on his bones,” as one Democrat put it.
“The process will work,” Pelosi said. “It’s bipartisan; the chips will have to fall where they may politically, but upholding the highest ethical standard is the highest priority for us.”
Second, Democrats believe the Rangel scandal isn't really hurting them all that badly back in their home districts. Some House Democrats think the media is overplaying the possible national implications of the case.
"I am not aware of anyone who is going to lose their election over this," said one senior Democrat. "Until it becomes a problem for other members, they will stick with Charlie."
And finally, in spite of the sordid nature of some of the Rangel allegations, the "Statement of Alleged Violations" released by a four-member investigative subcommittee on Thursday, didn't contain any new blockbusters. Members have been hearing about Rangel's ethics problems for two years, so the actual list of ethics charges had less impact because there were no surprises.
"This is a sad, individual tragedy," said one junior Democrat in a swing district. "But despite what the media is saying, this is not playing nationally, and there's no sign it will."
Only four Democrats – all from very vulnerable districts – have called for Rangel to resign. Heading into the first weekend of August recess, there doesn’t appear to be a cascade of fresh resignation calls coming.
Still, the ethics charges are sweeping. A special four-member investigative panel alleged on Thursday that Rangel had solicited millions of dollars in donations from corporations and charities for a New York City college building named after him, failed to disclose more than $600,000 in income and assets from his annual financial disclosure reports, improperly controlled four rent-stabilized units in a luxury Harlem apartment building, and did not pay income taxes on a resort home in the Dominican Republic.
Rangel has continued to insist that he has not violated House rules. "As long as alleged, what the hell, they can have an imagination," Rangel dismissively said the of the ethics committee this week.
Rangel is also lobbying some of his colleagues to stick with him. Rangel met with members of the New York delegation on Friday morning and urged them to read a 32-page document prepared by his lawyers in response to the ethics charges.
The New York Democrat complained that the media had not focused on his legal response to the charges, and he asked his colleagues to go through it before making any statements on his case, said two sources who attended the meeting.
Now, instead of pushing Rangel out, House Democrats are putting faith in that ethics process. Rangel faces a September trial by an eight-member panel in September. That panel has the power to dismiss any of the allegations against him.
Even some of the most conservative – and endangered – Democrats aren’t calling for Rangel’s head.
“We as the most powerful government body in the nation would take the time to let the procedure that we have in place make an effort to work. And it is working,” said Alabama Democrat Bobby Bright, whose district is overwhelmingly Republican.
Bright is getting hammered over Rangel in his southeastern Alabama district. The state’s Republican Party issued a news release entitled “Bright Silent on Rangel Amid Growing Calls for his resignation.”
But Bright, the former mayor of Birmingham, who was one of the first to call on Rangel to give up his Ways and Means chairmanship, said Rangel should be given “the opportunity to respond to the allegations.” If Rangel’s found guilty, Bright said he would be “as adamant as anyone to have him punished.”
“I’m not a cheerleader for anybody, I’m up here representing my district in the best way I possibly can,” Bright said. “But I do see a process that is being executed and after it’s completed we can all have our opinions one way or another, whether he’s guilty or not. I would hope there would be someone on the other side if I had similar charges, would give me the same professional courtesy."
Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.) said the ethical mishaps would leave a “small percentage of taint” on his party, but doesn't present a major political problem at this point.
Ruppersberger said he wasn't aware of any evidence that Rangel intentionally broke any laws, and chalked up some of the allegations up to “sloppy recordkeeping."
“There’s nothing wrong with getting money for non-profits in your district,” Ruppersberger said, referring to the Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Policy at City College in New York. “He’s not benefitting from that. Just because it’s named after him? That’s part of what we do, we represent our constituency.”
“Charlie Rangel is not reflecting a culture of anything,” added Rep. Henry Waxman, a California Democrat who has served with Rangel in Congress since 1975. “He’s being charged with personal errors that may amount and may not amount to violations of the ethics rules, that has not been determined.”
There have been some Democratic calls for Rangel’s resignation. Democratic Reps. Betty Sutton (Ohio) and Patrick Murphy (Pa.) have called for him to resign, while Reps. Walt Minnick (D-Idaho) and Ann Kirkpatrick (D-Ariz.) have said if the allegations prove true, Rangel should leave Congress.
Dozens of Democrats have also given up more than $540,000 in campaign donations funneled to them by Rangel, once one of the Democrats' biggest fundraising draws.