There’s something in the water, if not the Scotch and bourbon, at the HouseWays and Means Committee, and a procession of chairmen just couldn’t resist taking deep drafts of whatever it is. It’s entertaining for the rest of us, but expensive.
Rep. Charles B. Rangel, who has been in Congress longer than almost anyone else, spent Thursday vainly trying to cut a deal with the House ethics committee over his presumed capital indiscretions with the tax man. Charlie is a master craftsman of congressional bonhomie, and like most of his colleagues, he imagines that rules, most of which Congress writes, apply only to the peasants. What Charlie wants most of all is to keep his seat in the House. He thinks a public trial, which looks like what he’ll get, would be embarrassing, though it’s hard to imagine how a member of Congress could any longer be humiliated by anything.
Mark Twain, who lived in a more innocent age, gilded or not, famously observed that Congress is our only native criminal class. What could he think of several recent chairmen of the once-powerful HouseWays and Means Committee, where taxes originate. The most recent miscreants are Democrats, but that’s only because Democrats preside over the House more often than Republicans.
Dan Rostenkowski, who was chairman of the Ways and Means Committee from 1981 until he was deposed in 1994, is the most prominent member - so far - of the Congressional Prison Caucus. He didn’t necessarily cheat on taxes, but laundered money through the sale of stamps at the House Post Office, converted office funds to buy gifts for his friends and diverted more than a million dollars from campaign funds to pay his lawyers. He was practicing Chicago politics.
He served 15 months in a minimum-security prison, two days of it in solitary confinement after he sassed a social worker. He learned the hard way that social workers, like congressmen, don’t like back talk. He finally put in a useful day’s work in prison, earning 16 cents an hour for reading the boiler gauges in the prison electric-generating station. When he got one of Bill Clinton’s Christmas pardons just before Bubba checked out of the White House, he left the pokey to collect his $104,000-a-year congressional pension.
The saddest comeuppance was earned by Wilbur Mills, the chairman of Ways and Means for 18 years, longer than any other man in history, and once was regarded as the most powerful man in Congress. He kept a copy of the tax code at his bedside for nighttime reading, devouring the sections A and subsections B in the fine print like other congressmen devour Playboy centerfolds and Capital guides to massage parlors and bordellos. But Mr. Mills, who died in 1992, was not all the staid banker, and his appreciation for the terpsichorean arts finally cost him his seat in Congress.
A Park Police patrol car stopped his big black sedan, running without lights at 2 a.m., at the Tidal Basin on a cool October night in 1974. A cop’s flashlight revealed his face scratched and cut from an altercation with a constituent named Annabelle Battistella, perhaps over the capital-gains provisions in the tax code. Miss Battistella was better known as Fanne Fox, a stripper billed as “the Argentine Firecracker.” She leaped from the car and into the Tidal Basin, attempting to flee. She was caught and taken to St. Elizabeths Hospital for a psychiatric examination. She was crazy, but only for Mr. Mills, who then endured considerable embarrassment back home in Arkansas, where cavorting with constituents who make their living without much on is officially frowned on. But he was re-elected with 60 percent of the vote. Republicans, in or out of their clothes, were thought in those days to be unsuitable for public office in Fort Baptist.
Mr. Mills returned to his chairmanship and might have remained there for years, but three weeks after re-election he turned up with whisky on his breath at a burlesque house in Boston, and held a press conference in the Argentine Firecracker’s dressing room. Soon after he joined Alcoholics Anonymous, checked into a Florida hospital, stepped down as chairman of Ways and Means, and after leaving Congress at the end of his term devoted the rest of his life, sober, to helping other alcoholics.
Congressional entertainment has since become more sordid than entertaining, more mortifying than memorable, as young men have replaced young women as congressional prey of choice. Some call it progress.
Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.