- Associated Press - Monday, July 5, 2010

On Capitol Hill, just about everyone likes Charlie Rangel.

Republicans pump his hand, Democrats put their arms around his shoulders and women of all political persuasions give him pecks on the cheek.

Spend some time with the 80-year-old congressman from New York City who’s been striding the Capitol’s halls for four decades on behalf of his Harlem constituents, and there’s little evidence Mr. Rangel has become someone to avoid because of an ethics cloud that’s more likely than not only going to darken in days to come.

Colleagues in both parties still gravitate to the gravelly voiced, outgoing, backslapping Mr. Rangel four months after fellow Democrats persuaded - and Republicans hounded - him to relinquish one of the most powerful jobs in Washington: chairman of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee.

“Amiga,” he shouts in the Capitol subway to Cuban-born, Florida Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, using the Spanish word for female friend.

“Amigo,” she belts out in return.

Behind the scenes, it’s a different story. A few fellow Democrats have returned money that Mr. Rangel raised for them. His influence is sapped.

His wife, Alma, warns him not to be naive about the glad-handing.

“You know,” she tells him, “they’re putting you on.”

Mr. Rangel follows in a tradition of past Ways and Means chairmen such as Reps. Dan Rostenkowski, Illinois Democrat, and Wilbur Mills, Arkansas Democrat, who waited decades to become congressional titans, then lost their lofty perch through ethical lapses.

“Some members are old-school,” said Stanley Brand, a former House counsel and a defense attorney for many politicians in trouble. “As they rise in seniority … they think less about [rules] changes that occur under their nose.”

Mr. Rangel lost his post because his conduct gave Republicans an ethics issue that’s ripe for exploitation, just as Democrats in 2006 and 2008 successfully seized on GOP ethical lapses to reclaim control of Congress and the White House.

Nervous about losing House seats this year, Democrats persuaded Mr. Rangel to step down after the House ethics committee concluded in February in a relatively minor case that the New Yorker violated the chamber’s rules on gifts. The committee said Mr. Rangel should have known that corporate money paid for two trips to Caribbean conferences. Mr. Rangel insists he didn’t know. There was no punishment.

Far more ominous is an ongoing investigation into activities far more likely to touch the nerves of voters: Mr. Rangel’s failure to pay taxes on income from a Dominican Republic vacation villa, his rent-subsidized apartments in New York, using official stationery to raise money for a college center bearing his name, and his belated disclosure of assets revealing that he was far richer than people thought.

Mr. Rangel joined the Ways and Means Committee in 1974 and ascended to the chairman’s post more than three decades later. He said the pain of having his integrity questioned is terrible, but he tries hard not to show it.

He dresses immaculately, his gray hair neatly combed back, the color matching his mustache, and his pocket handkerchief matching his suit. He walks with a spry step.

The questioning of his honesty is “still painful,” he said. “It’s times like this when I have to reinforce the facts: I’m alive, I’m well, and 60 years ago I could have died when I was surrounded by hundreds of Chinese” in the Korean War.

Mr. Rangel came back from that war a hero with a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star. He said he constantly measures his current troubles against the 20-degrees-below-zero days of Nov. 29 to Dec. 1, 1950, when he was wounded, but survived while fellow soldiers died all around him.

Long before he was chairman, Mr. Rangel took care of his Harlem constituents, many of them poor. He sponsored empowerment zones with tax credits for businesses moving into economically depressed areas and for developers of low-income housing.

As chairman, he pushed bills with tax relief for victims of Hurricane Katrina, tax breaks for small business and stronger environmental and labor rules in trade agreements, tax rebates for consumers and an increase in the minimum wage. He was a major player in the passage of President Obama’s $862 billion stimulus program last year, one-third of it tax cuts.

But Mr. Rangel lacked the power of some of his predecessors, a reflection of changes in the way the House operates.

He was a longtime advocate of health care reform, but Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, passed him over for guiding Mr. Obama’s overhaul bill to passage. An important part of the House’s climate change legislation also was given to another committee, when it could have gone primarily to Ways and Means.

House leaders forced Mr. Rangel to reverse himself and manage a bill to tax away Wall Street bonuses after he told reporters that would be a misuse of tax law.

Leadership aides said those decisions were part of the strategy to pass important legislation and didn’t represent a loss of confidence in Mr. Rangel. Other committee lawmakers, however, said the chairman was hobbled by his ethics problems - and his reduced role reflected that view.

Said Mr. Rangel: “There’s no way I could have taken it personally. The speaker is more hands-on in committee work than before.”

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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