Why are Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the House Democratic leadership so stoutly resisting calls for ethically challenged Charles Rangel to step down as Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, as recommended by an Examiner editorial? I can think of several reasons.
One is that Rangel is personally popular and that many members have respect for a man who, however many hundreds of thousands of dollars of assets and income he failed to report on his disclosure forms, was a war hero in Korea. My instinct too is to cut him some slack for this; read the first two paragraphs of this Lexington piece in the Economist and see if you don’t agree.
The second reason is that members of the Congressional Black Caucus will resent the demotion of a black member who has been a competent and sometimes effective chairman of a very important committee.
But the third reason is, I suspect, the most important one, and you can see what it is if you look at the seniority roster of Ways and Means. House Democrats, although they have elected committee chairmen since 1974, have since they regained their majority in 2006 with only one major exception observed the seniority rule. This has made sense since the grizzled veterans at the top of the seniority lists who held on during 12 years of the Republican majority were mostly highly competent members (Rangel on Ways and Means, David Obey on Appropriations, Louise Slaughter on Rules, etc.). The single glaring exception, the ouster of John Dingell from the Energy and Commerce chairmanship by Henry Waxman, came by a narrow majority in the Democratic Caucus and for policy reasons, because Waxman supported more stringent cap-and-trade legislation than Dingell.
The second most senior Democrat on Ways and Means is Pete Stark of California. He is a San Francisco Bay Area left liberal, which would seem to be fine with Pelosi, but he is also a party maverick who does not necessarily play team ball and a hothead given to embarrassing outbursts for which he has sometimes felt obliged to apologize. Last June Stark was one of 44 House Democrats to vote against the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill, presumably because he didn’t feel it was stringent enough, on a roll call on which the leadership prevailed by only a 219-212 margin. This can’t have been appreciated by Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer. The prospect of Stark heading the House side in a conference committee on an important issue must be unsettling to them. Rangel they can pretty well deal with. Stark could be a loose cannon.
As he can be on the floor of the House. If you google “Pete Stark” and outbursts, you get 4,900 hits.
The next ranking Democrat on Ways and Means is Sander Levin of Michigan, whom I’ve known since I volunteered in Democratic campaigns in 1964 and he was Oakland County Democratic Chairman. He is competent and careful, and Pelosi can be sure that he has filled out his disclosure forms properly and will not burst out with any embarrassing comments. But he’s from Michigan, which has its own set of political interests, with which Pelosi, to judge from her covert support of Waxman over Michigan’s John Dingell, is not sympathetic.
The fourth ranking Democrat on Ways and Means is Jim McDermott of Washington. He’s a psychiatrist from Seattle, with a leftish voting record, who made some controversial comments on a trip to Iraq in the weeks before the Iraq war broke out.
You have to get down to the fifth ranking Democrat, John Lewis of Georgia, before you come to another member of the Congressional Black Caucus. Lewis is widely respected for his heroism as a leader in the civil rights movement, but he’s also given to controversial statements.
Put yourself in Pelosi’s shoes and you can see that there’s no win-win choice she can make in replacing Rangel. Anything she does will make many House Democrats mad, and some of the possible replacements could prove embarrassing at election time 2010. From her point of view, it’s better to hope that the ethics committee investigation of Rangel can take up most of the time between now and November 2010, and that Rangel might make things easier on everyone by announcing he’s not seeking reelection after 40 years of service in the House. (He first won the seat in 1970 by defeating Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. in the 1970 Democratic primary; the Harlem seat, first created for the 1944 election, has been represented by only two men over 65 years.) Politico reports that some Upstate New York House Democrats are getting antsy about Rangel’s problems and that House Republicans sense that they have a winning issue in Rangel whatever happens. I think it’s unfortunate that Rangel made such astonishing omissions on his disclosure forms, and at a time when Senator Ted Stevens was being prosecuted (unjustly, as it turned out) for allegedly making incomplete disclosure of gifts. Like Stevens, who was a pilot in World War II, Rangel served his country heroically in wartime and can claim to have served his constituents faithfully for four decades, and I wish that their political careers could have ended on a valedictory note.