The Democrats' takeover of the House in 2006 transformed Rep. Charles B. Rangel, D-Manhattan, into one of the three most powerful members of the body. It made the 38-year incumbent the new chairman of the House Committee on Ways and Means.
Before that he gained prominence mainly as a gravelly-voiced Sunday talk show guest and as the powerless ranking Democrat on ways and means. Now all that's changed.
Under the Constitution, all tax measures -- adding or cutting -- must originate with the committee that Rangel dominates. The committee also holds sway over Social Security, Medicare, and some aspects of Medicaid. In addition, Rangel controls legislation on international trade such as the North American Free Trade Agreement, and Chinese imports.
On Tuesday, the Washington Post disclosed that Rangel "is soliciting donations from corporations with business interests before his panel, hoping to raise $30 million for a new academic center that will house his papers when he retires."
“The New York Democrat," the Post said, "has penned letters on congressional stationery and has sought meetings to ask for corporate and foundation contributions for the Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service at the City College of New York, a project that caused controversy last year when he won a $1.9 million congressional earmark to help start it.
Republican critics dubbed the project Rangel's ‘Monument to Me.’”
Kevin Smith, spokesman for the House Republican leadership, called Rangel's tactics "another example of the hypocrisy of House Democrats who famously promised to 'drain the swamp' in Washington."
The Post noted that the House Ethics Manual says that official House resources, specifically including stationery, "must be used for the performance of official business of the House, and hence those resources may not be used for campaign or political purposes." The manual later states, "Official stationery, like other official resources, may be used only for official purposes."
Does Rangel's desire to discuss the new center constitute "official business"?
The story about Rangel's use of House stationery to ask potential donors to discuss "his vision" for the center broke just as Rangel was trying to brush back issues dealing with his rental of four highly coveted rent-restricted apartments in Manhattan from one of the town's most powerful developers.
Rangel has said he did nothing wrong relative to getting the apartments, but has declined to comment about the use, or misuse of official House resources.
Calls for an official House Ethics Committee probe of Rangel have come not just from House Republicans, but from Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, or CREW.
"It's not a close call," said Melanie Sloan, CREW's executive director. "He's clearly violated the rule against using the letterhead."
One question is whether House Republicans will file a formal request with the House Ethics Committee. Since 1997, House rules have barred the committee from considering a complaint from an outside group such as CREW.
The House has created the skeleton of an outside body to consider non-congressional complaints, but House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who has been cool to ethics reform hasn't appointed members to the independent body. Neither for that matter has House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, R-Ohio., in spite of what GOP spokesman Smith said about Democratic "hypocrisy."
Do you think there will be an ethics probe of Rangel before this November's congressional elections?
--- Douglas Turner