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Divided House votes to censure Rangel on ethics

N.Y. Democrat only 23rd member rebuked in history

- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 2, 2010

Acknowledging they were breaking new ground, deeply divided House lawmakers voted Thursday to censure Rep. Charles B. Rangel for breaking tax laws and House rules, saying Congress needed to live up to Speaker Nancy Pelosi's pledge to be open, honest and ethical.

Mrs. Pelosi herself publicly read the censure to the New York Democrat as the 20-term veteran stood before her in the well of the House, becoming just the 23rd member to be censured in House history, and the first person in 27 years.

Among the charges against him were failing to declare rental income on a vacation home in the Dominican Republic and violating the House's solicitation and gift ban.

Mixing sorrow and defiance, Mr. Rangel, a Korean War veteran who is much-beloved by his colleagues, told them he had erred. But he also said the censure was "political" and said he thought the House was unfairly trying to teach lawmakers a lesson by making an example of him.

"I know in my heart I'm not going to be judged by this Congress. But I'm going to be judged by my life, my activities, my contributions to society," Mr. Rangel said afterward, drawing applause from some fellow Democrats, particularly members of the Congressional Black Caucus.

The vote was 333-79 to impose the censure, which carries a severe stigma though no other official loss of privileges.

But the key vote came minutes earlier when a more narrowly divided House voted 267-146 against instead imposing the lesser penalty of a reprimand. Mr. Rangel's support came heavily, though not exclusively, from fellow black lawmakers and liberal Democrats. Three Republicans also voted for a reprimand.

All sides, including Mr. Rangel himself, agreed he transgressed, and House Democrats had earlier pushed Mr. Rangel from his position as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee.

But on Thursday lawmakers disagreed over how serious the violations were. His backers said he was "sloppy" and "overzealous" but not corrupt or criminal, while those who pushed for censure said the pattern of behavior - his violations ranged from misuse of his office to failing to report taxes - argued for the more severe penalty.

"For precedent to be followed, precedent must be set," said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, California Democrat and chairwoman of the House ethics committee that conducted the two-year investigation of Mr. Rangel.

The panel found him guilty of 11 violations, mostly related to his efforts to raise funds for the Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Policy at City College of New York.

The ethics committee's investigative report, which ran to 5,000 pages, said Mr. Rangel solicited donations using official letterhead from people who had business before the Ways and Means Committee during the time he was the chairman or the ranking Democrat on the panel.

During the hour-long floor debate Mr. Rangel apologized for putting his colleagues in the "awkward position" of sitting in judgment of him, and said he was taking responsibility for his actions. But he said censure was unfair, based on history.

While early censures were issued for insults or inappropriate language in the House, in recent years the penalty has been issued for sexual misconduct with a House page, payroll fraud and improper use of campaign funds.

Transgressions by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Majority Leader Tom DeLay instead drew a reprimand or the even lighter punishment of an admonishment.

"I brought it on myself, but I still believe this body has to be governed by fairness," Mr. Rangel said in a six-minute speech, before turning his defense over to fellow lawmakers.

The debate was one of those rare occasions when there were more lawmakers on the House floor than there were spectators in the public galleries, and his colleagues listened closely.

Lawmakers from across the board spoke in Mr. Rangel's defense, including a New York Republican and fellow Democrats who were members of the Black and Hispanic caucuses.

"He knows he messed up. He knows he'll be punished. We just ask he be punished like anyone else," said Rep. Robert C. Scott, Virginia Democrat.

But Mrs. Pelosi's vow four years ago to clean up the image of Congress hung over the entire proceedings, with Republicans and Democrats saying they felt an obligation to clean up the image of the chamber.

Ethics committee members said Mr. Rangel was uncooperative for much of the investigation, and downright misleading to the public at other times.

Mrs. Pelosi did not vote on either the reprimand or censure votes. The House speaker often does not vote on roll call votes.

Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, voted for both reprimand and censure, while Whip James E. Clyburn, South Carolina Democrat, voted only for reprimand and against censure.

Rep. John A. Boehner of Ohio, the GOP's leader and speaker-designate after Republicans take control in January, and Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the incoming majority leader, both voted against reprimand and in favor of censure.

"This is a sad day for the House of Representatives, and a reminder of the work we have ahead of us to repair the shattered bonds of trust between the people and their government," Mr. Boehner said in a statement afterward.

The censure requires that Mr. Rangel submit proof to the ethics panel that he has paid his tax liabilities.

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