For months now, we’ve witnessed a charade when it comes to the wrongdoing of Rep. Charles Rangel, Democrat of New York. The charade came to a climax yesterday with the official vote to censure Rangel. But what is censure? Censure is nothing. Rangel will have to stand before his colleagues and have the details of his wrongdoing read aloud to him. That’s it.
You’re hearing, I’m sure, about how this is extraordinary because it’s the first time in 27 years that a House member will be formally censured. Yes, it’s very rare, so the punishment sounds very dire. But how totally dire can it be when the House has actually expelled more members in the past 30 years than it has censured? Since 1980, two sitting congressmen were kicked out of the body because of their illegal behavior (Michael Myers of Pennsylvania, who took an ABSCAM bribe, and Jim Traficant of Ohio, following convictions for tax evasion and bribery).
Everybody knows that Rangel played it extraordinarily fast and loose with federal income tax laws, the rules governing nonprofits, and New York City’s rent-control statutes. On a planet filled with graft-mad politicians, what Rangel has done is small beer, even by recent standards of the House of Representatives — in which one San Diego Republican named Duke Cunningham took millions from defense contractors, and William Jefferson of Louisiana had that famous $90,000 in his freezer. Neither was censured or expelled, because they left the House before action could be taken against them. This is what explains Rangel’s seemingly inexplicable hauteur in relation to the charges; it is as though he were saying, “You’re nailing me for this? I’m only doing what everybody does, and I’m not getting credit for much I’ve turned down!”
Rangel’s true wrongdoing has far more to do with the ways he and others impeded economic progress in Harlem than it does with a Caribbean vacation or a fourth cheap apartment. But the only censure he gets for that is from the people who know the truth about it.
There’s something of a game afoot here. Rangel, by fighting so hard against censure, has made it seem like it’s just a terrible, terrible punishment; but it isn’t at all. Maybe it’s kind of embarrassing, although it couldn’t be much more embarrassing than what he’s already been through. By acting as though he’s being scourged, he’s playing a role. Indeed, he has played it so well that he got himself a standing ovation from the very same Democrats who had just voted to censure him. Which really gives the game away.