Rangel punishment unlikely to satisfy anyone
The likely result of House Ethics Committee’s conviction of Congressman Charles Rangel on ethical violations charges will probably mollify no one. The first reports of possible punishment include censure or a letter of reprimand. While these are considered harsh punishments in Congress, it is doubtful that the public at large agrees. The general populace, noting that others could face criminal liability for the same actions, sees censure as a slap on the wrist. Anything less than expulsion would appear to be another example of endemic and increasing corruption in government — and indictment of a system that looks to protect its own members.
While this is an understandable view, it misses out on the harder line Congress on corruption problems in a post-Watergate world. While they might not be a guard dog of rectitude, this is still a marked change from the past. Financial indiscretions use to be all but ignored. Senator Daniel Webster and others were famously on the payroll of the Bank of the U.S. Congress also saw a huge, though by now long forgotten, scandal in the 1870s. The Credit Mobiler scandal, which was outgrowth of the building of the first Transcontinental Railroad and involved bribing numerous members of Congress and the Administration, resulted in two Censures. The Vice President, Shuyler Colfax, was not renominated, but his replacement was also implicated in the scandal. Other pre-Watergate financial scandals were quickly papered over and forgotten.
Due to both a more active press looking into stories of political corruption and stricter campaign finance rules, there is little question that Congress has been more willing to hold members responsible for ethical violations. In the history of the House, only two representatives have been expelled for non-treason reasons. Both were post-Watergate. One was in 1980, Michael Myers who was convicted in the Abscam sting, the other was James Traficant in 2002, after being convicted of 10 different counts of criminal behavior. Censure and reprimands have also gone up. Despite being thought of as a wrist-slapper, the House has also been more active in ethics investigations of its top leadership. In 1989, Jim Wright resigned under an ethical cloud for using bulk book sales to get around a limit on speaking honorariums. Newt Gingrich was reprimanded for using a college course for political purposes.
Of course, for good reason, the Ethic Committee’s increased action doesn’t satisfy critics. They still crop up with alarming regularity. The bigger problem people have with ethical scandals is that voters do not necessarily punish the violators. Despite the ethical cloud that has been over his head for the past two years, Rangel was easily reelected in November. And he wasn’t the only Congressman of recent vintage to receive voter affirmation after a scandal broke. In 2010, Georgia Congressman Nathan Deal resigned while he was under two investigations for using his position to enhance his personal business dealings. He was just elected Governor. Nevada Congresman Jim Gibbons faced a host of different charges, including bribery, sexual assault and using an illegal immigrant as a nanny. He was also elected Governor, back in 2006.
Joshua Spivak is a PR executive and senior fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform at Wagner College