The Rangel Censure

It was a historic day in the House on Thursday, as Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-NY) was censured by his colleagues for a variety of ethics violations, the first such punishment in 27 years.

The ebb and flow on the House floor was much like I remembered from previous ethics debates in years past, as the Ethics Committee members opened with tough statements, then backers of Rangel tried their best to sway lawmakers to apply a lesser punishment.

"I have found no cases with charges similar to, or analagous to Congressman Rangel, be resolved with censure," said Rep. Peter King (R-NY), one of only two Republicans to vote against the ethics penalty.

Others joined in, and as I wrote in my blog yesterday, there was that familiar feeling on the floor that maybe - just maybe - the House would ignore the recommendations of the Ethics Committee, and lessen the Rangel punishment.

Rangel apologized to the full House, but again challenged the decision of the committee to recommend a censure, again arguing that when compared to other ethics cases, his transgressions paled in comparison.

As Ethics member Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-NC) forced a vote on a simple written reprimand, it didn't take long to figure out that Rangel was in trouble.

While the New York Democrat stood quietly, Democrats with grim faces watched with their arms folded as the big vote board above the Speaker's chair kept showing more and more 'No' votes from Democrats.

All the while, Rangel stood at a lectern on the floor, smartly dressed in a crisp suit with a blue tie and matching handkerchief.  

He said little, and few stopped to talk to him.  For the most part, he was all by himself.

Only three Republicans voted for a lesser punishment, as Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX), Rep. Peter King (R-NY) and Rep. Don Young (R-AK) all voted for a reprimand.  But that bid lost 267-146.

The final vote to censure Rangel was 333-79.  King and Young were the only two GOP'ers to vote with Rangel.

Then the time for history had arrived.  The galleries were empty, which almost seemed unfortunate in terms of the import of the moment as the chamber drew absolutely quiet, an almost impossible task with hundreds of people gathered there.

Some lawmakers were wearing their overcoats, like Rep. Mike Ross (D-AR), who had sprinted in from the elevator to cast his vote, out of breath and obviously ready to head to the airport for his flight home.

Others like Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) - herself under ethical scrutiny - stood with arms crossed, staring out at the scene before them.

Just before 6pm, Speaker Nancy Pelosi came into the chamber to take the gavel, and Rangel presented himself in the well, ready for what amounts to a public shaming.

In a somewhat uncertain voice, Speaker Pelosi read the censure resolution against Rangel and then barely tapped her gavel to signify that the proceedings were over.

One might imagine the scene would have been different had the committee been judging a member of the opposite party.  But that's the way that Washington, D.C. works.

As members of the black caucus rushed to Rangel's side, he surprised many by asking for a minute to speak to the House.

Rangel said he thought his ethics prosecution was a political endeavor, a suggestion that clearly did not win much support on the Republican side of the aisle.

When Rangel finished, saying that his life would ultimately not be "judged by this Congress," many Democrats rose and gave Rangel a standing ovation.

GOP lawmakers seemed to shake their heads and then headed out of the chamber.

House GOP Leader John Boehner labeled it a "sad day" for the Congress.

The last time a member had been censured was after the Page Scandal of the early 1980's, when Rep. Gerry Studds (D-MA) and Rep. Dan Crane (R-IN) stood in the Well to receive their public rebuke for their relationships with teenage pages.

While I wasn't in the House chamber for that, I was watching, as I had been a Page during the time that the Page Scandal developed.  Somewhere in the files of the Ethics Committee is a typewritten letter from me, stating that I had witnessed no illegal or unethical behavior during my time as a Page.

But others had, as it ensnared both members and staffers.

For Studds and Crane, their original recommended penalty from the ethics panel had been a written reprimand.  But the full House refused to accept that, and strengthened their punishment to censure in floor votes.

My first memories of Rangel come from that same time when I was a Page, as I would ride into work with my father.  Driving down 16th Street in Washington, D.C. towards downtown, we would often see Rangel driving to work in an old Mercedes that he kept for years.

He was a beloved figure; always well dressed, always smiling, often full of stories and more.  His career went up and up until he became Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.

But it all came crashing down around him yesterday, as he stood silently on the House floor, his colleagues delivering him a historic rebuke.

It was a historic day in the House on Thursday, as Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-NY) was censured by his colleagues for a variety of ethics violations, the first such punishment in 27 years. The ebb and flow on the House floor was much like I remembered from previous ethics debates ...

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