The House Ethics Committee tonight voted 9-1 to recommend that Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., be censured on 11 counts of breaking House rules, and that he pay any unpaid taxes tied to financial misconduct.
The entire House will likely consider the censure motion after Thanksgiving, which requires a simple majority to pass. If it does pass, the 80-year-old Harlem lawmaker will be require to stand in the well of the House chamber and receive a formal rebuke.
Ethics Committee Chair Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., in announcing the committee's recommendation after several hours of closed-door deliberation with colleagues, said the process had been "quite wrenching."
Somberly, Rangel responded to her that he hoped the committee "might be able to indicate in some way" that any action of his was not intended to bring discredit to the House, or that his actions "were not considered corrupt."
Earlier in the day, Rangel had only used half of his allotted half hour in addressing the committee. Rangel admitted to “irresponsible” behavior but insisted he is “not corrupt” or a “bad person.”
But an ethics subpanel on Monday had determined that 11 counts against Rangel had been proven, including charges that he had broken House rules related to his personal finances and his fundraising effort for a public service center named after himself at City College of New York. Today's proceedings were to decide what punishment to recommend.
The House's most recent censure, a stronger form of reprimand, occurred in 1983, when Rep. Gerry Studds, D-Mass., was punished in a scandal involving a relationship with an underage congressional page.
The five Democrats and five Republicans deliberated for several hours, after the committee's chief counsel, Blake Chisam, had advised them earlier today that censure was his recommendation for punishment.
"In historical terms, I think that would be significant on its own terms," said Chisam. He said the seriousness of Rangel's actions was exacerbated because of his senior position in Congress, and how it discredited the House.
Rangel, who had walked out of his disciplinary hearing on Monday, returned for today's proceedings, at one point accompanied by Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga. Rangel made statements and at times engaged in a lively back-and-forth with some of the panel's members.
"I didn’t try to hide anything from anybody," said Rangel at one point, in his defense. "Overzealous is not an excuse... but it is an explanation."
Lewis, standing by his friend at one point, said he did not know the specifics of the charges. But he said that Rangel "is a hardworking public servant.... He’s always been a champion for those who've been left out or left behind. He is a good and decent man."
Rangel has been fighting the accusations of ethical misconduct for nearly two years. In walking out of his disciplinary hearing Monday, he said he was upset he wasn’t given more time to raise money to pay for new lawyers.
Rangel, who lost his chairmanship of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee amid these ethical probes, had previously apologized for mistakes, but also has insisted he did nothing corrupt.
And today, even before the recommendation was announced, the lawmaker was asking publicly for mercy.
"I hope my four decades of service merit a sanction that is in keeping with and no greater than House precedents, and also contains a drop of fairness and mercy," said Rangel, in a statement released by his office. "How can 40 witnesses, 30,000 pages of transcripts, over 550 exhibits measure against my 40 years of service and commitment to this body I love so much? I ask the committee in reviewing the sanctions to take that into serious consideration, as well as the effects this ordeal has had on my wife, family, and constituents.”
The censure represents the equivalent of a sentencing recommendation to the full Congress.
The range of other possible punishments included a formal a reprimand, a fine, or a rebuke, which all require simple majority approval by the full House.
A more serious option would have been expulsion, which requires a two-thirds approval by the House.
Rep. James Traficant, D-Ohio, was expelled in 2002 after being convicted of obstruction of justice, conspiracy to commit bribery, tax evasion, and racketeering, though other lawmakers have resigned from office to avoid such a result.
“I believe in the ethics committee process,” said incoming Speaker John Boehner.
As for how fast the House should move on voting on the committee’s recommendation, Boehner said, “I believe that Mr. Rangel wanted a faster process than what was afforded him by the committee.”
“And I believe that dealing with this as soon as possible is in the best interest of the institution and Mr. Rangel,” said Boehner.
It proved to be a long day. Ranking Republican Rep. Jo Bonner of Alabama used his opening statement during today's proceedings to launch a broadside at Rangel, accusing him of discrediting Congress and his constituents.
“It is painful to say this to a man I personally respect, but Mr. Rangel can no longer blame anyone but himself for the situation he finds himself in,” the Alabaman said, occasionally raising his voice. “Mr. Rangel should only look into the mirror if he wants to know who to blame.”
Bonner also accused the committee of failing New York voters for not holding the trial until after Rangel was reelected.
Republican committee members sharply questioned why Rangel continued to assert he wasn’t corrupt.
"Failure to pay taxes for 17 years. What is that?" asked Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas.
This article appears in the November 18, 2010 edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.