House Ways and Means Committee chairman Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., faces a potential double-barreled challenge when the new Congress convenes in January: House members could seek to force a vote on whether he should get another two years in his powerful post; at the same time the House Ethics Committee is scheduled to issue a report on its investigation of several news reports about his possible ethical violations.
No less an authority than Speaker Nancy Pelosi suggested that possible scenario in an unusual Thanksgiving eve announcement. "I have been assured the [Ethics Committee] report will be completed by the end of this session of Congress, which concludes on January 3, 2009. I look forward to reviewing the report at that time." The panel launched its inquiry in September with an investigative subcommittee examining possible violations related to four allegations in news reports during the previous two months, which related largely to Rangel's personal finances.
Pelosi's statement this week followed new revelations on Tuesday in The New York Times, which raised potentially more serious charges of official misbehavior. "Congressional records and interviews show that Mr. Rangel was instrumental in preserving a lucrative tax loophole that benefited an oil-drilling company last year, while at the same time its chief executive was pledging $1 million" to a project named for him at City College of New York, according to the lengthy page-one report.
The Times editorialized the following day that Pelosi should insist on an ethics investigation and that Rangel should give up his chairmanship during the inquiry. "If Mr. Rangel continues to resist, the speaker should permanently reassign the gavel. In a deep economic crisis, the committee, and the country, cannot afford the distraction," the editorial concluded.
Before the Ethics Committee announced its inquiry on Sept. 24, the House had voted twice on separate resolutions on Rangel that were filed by Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio. Those actions showed that most Republicans backed strong disciplinary action, while Democrats remained loyal to Rangel.
On Sept. 18, the House voted 226-176 to table a Boehner resolution calling for an ethics investigation of Rangel, and his removal as Ways and Means chairman in the meantime. The vote was party-line, except for five Republicans who opposed the resolution and 11 members (mostly, Ethics Committee members) who voted "present." Earlier, the House on July 31 voted 254-138 to table a Boehner resolution that would have censured Rangel, based largely on the news reports; 25 Republicans split with their party and 29 others voted "present."
But Pelosi's announcement of the Ethics Committee's plan raises major new dynamics. When the next Congress convenes, the House ordinarily approves in a routine procedure the appointment of members, including chairmen, of its committees. Although there is no recent precedent for a challenge to such appointments -- which are made by each party's Caucus -- an obscure parliamentary precedent appears to indicate that the House has the authority to review, for example, the Democratic Caucus's action earlier this month to approve Rangel as Ways and Means chairman in the 111th Congress.
According to a note issued by Parliamentarian Lewis Deschler, who held that position from 1928 to 1974, "motions for the election of Members to committees are debatable and are subject to amendment." His ruling followed a February 1971 House debate, in which Rep. Jerome Waldie, D-Calif., announced his plan to challenge the continuation of Rep. John McMillan, D-S.C.., as chairman of the District of Columbia Committee. The arch-conservative McMillan had infuriated liberals such as Waldie with his steadfast opposition to home-rule for the District of Columbia. On the House floor, Majority Leader Hale Boggs, D-La., and Minority Leader Gerald Ford, R-Mich., discussed the appropriateness of House review; at the time, each agreed that the Caucus's decision should not be challenged.
And Rep. Philip Burton, D-Calif. -- who later served as Democratic Caucus chairman and represented the district that Pelosi now holds -- cautioned, "It is a most dangerous precedent, I would think, without regard to the political point of view that any of us might hold, to in effect give the minority caucus veto power over the majority caucus deliberations as to whom they select to lead the various committees of the Congress." Ultimately, the House kept McMillan as chairman, without separate votes.
Boehner and his staff, for now, have not signaled whether they would challenge House approval of Rangel as chairman. But they have made clear that they will consider all available options. And it's conceivable that Democrats in the usually routine Opening Day rules package could seek to modify the rules to restrict a subsequent House challenge to the naming of committee members and chairmen.
A related question, of course, is what action the Ethics Committee will take on Rangel and whether the panel might seek House discipline. In a potentially relevant precedent, the House on Jan. 21, 1997 voted 395-28 to "reprimand" Speaker Newt Gingrich and ordered him to reimburse $300,000 to the House for violations of tax laws in his political activities; interestingly, Pelosi served on the four-member subcommittee that spent months reviewing the Gingrich case. That vote came two weeks after the House voted, 216-205, to re-elect Gingrich as Speaker, with nine House Republicans voting "present" or for another choice. That action significantly weakened Gingrich, who stepped down as Speaker following the 1998 election.
In the Rangel case, the Ethics Committee seemingly has not tipped its hand -- largely because House rules impose severe restrictions on its members. But Pelosi's Nov. 26 statement potentially raised questions of possible interference with the committee's work.
For example, under the House's Rule XI, members of the Ethics Committee must take the following oath: "I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will not disclose to any person or entity outside the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct any information received in the course of my service with the committee, except as authorized by the committee, or in accordance with its rules." Another part of that rule states, "only the Chairman or Ranking Member, after consultation with each other, may make public statements regarding matters before the committee or any subcommittee thereof."
Serving on the four-member investigative subcommittee in the Rangel case are acting committee chairman Gene Green, D-Texas, who is chairing the investigation; Doc Hastings, R-Wash., ranking Republican member on both the committee and subcommittee; Bobby Scott, D-Va.; and Jo Bonner, R-Ala.
A senior House GOP aide said that Pelosi's Thanksgiving eve statement might itself be evidence of a violation of House rules and grounds for a complaint. On the other hand, she did not describe the source or circumstances in which, as she stated, she was "assured the report will be completed" by Jan. 3.
The Rangel case already has been replete with allegations of mistrust. In September, Boehner told the House, "I've been concerned for some time that the Ethics Committee has not been a functioning committee of the House."
Rangel, for his part, has insisted on Ethics Committee review of the allegations. As he told the House on July 31, in calling for the review: "Let us join in. But with not one scintilla of any evidence, other than a newspaper story, I think fairness would say, for God's sake, don't make politics out of a person's reputation."
With major proposals from the prospective Obama Administration expected to be referred to the Ways and Means Committee, House members likely will be forced to confront a host of volatile parliamentary and ethical questions -- and the chairmanship of that panel.