Wrangling Rangel

The Speaker’s Lobby: Wrangling Rangel

By: Chad Pergram, FOX News

08 October 2009

Congress often laments that the federal government should do more with less. Tighten its belt. Cut the fat. Eliminate duplication.

So Wednesday, Rep. John Carter (R-TX) introduced a 2,044 word resolution designed to remove House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-NY) from his post until the Ethics Committee finishes probing the Harlem Democrat for a host of alleged misdeeds. Carter punctuated the resolution with 39 paragraphs that begin with the word “whereas.” He began reading the sonorous resolution to the House at 12:53 pm.

“Whereas these most recent revelations by Representative Rangel have resulted in heightened national news media coverage of alleged impropriety and potentially criminal conduct,” Carter droned.

“Whereas at various times during the past twelve months Representative Rangel and Speaker Pelosi have made public statements asserting that the ongoing investigation of Representative Rangel by the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct would soon be concluded,” he continued.

Until 1:14 pm.

At which point, Carter finished presenting his special resolution to the House. And now it was the turn of the House reading clerk to read precisely what Carter read aloud, all over again.

Until 1:25 pm.

Just in case lawmakers missed it the first time.

You know, that whole business about “not reading the bills” and all of that.

Rangel did not flinch during this exercise. He sat in the front row of the House chamber and stared straight ahead. Reps. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) and Sander Levin (D-MI) flanked him.

At 1:26 pm, the House voted on whether to take a vote to refer Carter’s resolution to the Ethics Committee. Which would presumably do nothing with Carter’s complaint. After all, the Ethics panel has investigated Rangel since last July. Just before Thanksgiving last year, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said the committee “assured” her that “the report will be completed by the end of this session of Congress, which concludes January 3, 2009.”

And after the House voted in favor of taking a vote, it voted again. To send Carter’s request to the committee that was already evaluating Rangel’s conduct.

The whole sortie concluded around 1:56 pm, consuming slightly more than an hour of the House’s time.

And accomplished very little.

Certainly Republicans argue that point. The GOP has embraced Rangel’s alleged ethics woes as a cause célèbre. They’ve tried to morph Rangel into an icon of Democratic inconsistency. After all, Pelosi and the Democrats seized control of the House on the heels of sullied Republican figures like former Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) and Reps. Bob Ney (R-OH) and Duke Cunningham (R-CA). Ney served time and is now free. Cunningham remains in jail. Pelosi pledged to “drain the swamp” under her watch.

Meantime, the Ethics Committee is studying whether Rangel failed to report as much as $600,000 in income on his financial disclosure forms; whether he may have improperly used Congressional letterhead to ask for donations to a public affairs school that bears his name at City of College of New York; and whether he failed to pay taxes on a villa in the Dominican Republic.

Rangel has now made good on the unpaid taxes. But Republicans found it ironic that the chairman of the House’s tax-writing panel had tax trouble.

John Carter says it would “at least make more sense” if Rangel suffered tax issues and chaired a different committee besides the one that governs U.S. tax policy.

This is the third time in 13 months that Republicans have tried to sanction Rangel. The GOP efforts have enjoyed little success on the floor. But their efforts commanded headlines and filled media airwaves for months. The buzz has forced Rangel into a particularly vexing spot as Congress wrestles with health care reform. After all, Rangel’s Ways and Means panel is one of the committees charged with crafting the health care reform legislation.

A Rangel spokesman focused on this dynamic amid the health care negotiations.

“Let’s look at this resolution for what it really is,” said the spokesman who didn’t want to be identified. “(It’s) a highly-partisan effort designed to undermine the important work in Congress on health care reform.”

The GOP’s attempt to strip Rangel of his gavel, at least temporarily, triggered a few moments of consternation on the House floor.

Carter’s labored reading of his resolution seemed to exasperate Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-NY). Ackerman interrupted Carter with a question to Speaker Pro Tempore Tim Holden (D-PA).

“Can any member of this body claim the privilege of the House for an hour, based on something they read in the newspaper, at any time they want?” Ackerman asked.

And then there was confusion over the votes.

The first vote tied to Carter’s resolution was on “Ordering the Previous Question On the Motion to Refer.” In Congressional parlance, this is a procedural maneuver, often called the “PQ.” Despite its abbreviation, the PQ has nothing to do with the separatist “Parti Quebecois” in Canada. The PQ is simply a vote to tee-up the next vote. But most news organizations mistakenly reported the PQ vote as the actual vote to dispatch Carter’s resolution to the Ethics Committee. And even so, there was a slight difference in the total of the procedural vote (246 to 153 with 19 members voting present) than on the actual vote to direct Carter’s resolution to committee (243-156 with 19 members voting present).

After the votes, Rangel huddled for more than an hour with Ways and Means Committee Democrats in his hovel not far from the House floor. A phalanx of reporters teamed in the hallway in hope of chatting with Rangel after the meeting broke. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi dropped by the chairman’s conclave. Then came an entreaty by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT).

Rep. Joe Crowley (D-NY) is the lawmaker the Democratic leadership team asked to refer John Carter’s resolution to the Ethics Committee. Reporters descended on Crowley when he emerged from the meeting.

“I believe the resolution was steered properly (to the Ethics Committee)” Crowley said.

The scribes continued to pepper Crowley about Rangel. Finally, Martin Vaughan of Dow Jones Newswires piped up.

“On excise taxes…” Vaughan began.

“Wait. You don’t want to talk about Charlie Rangel?” Crowley inquired of Vaughan. “I love you, man!”

Crowley, who stands well over six feet, proceeded to give the 6’5” Vaughan a hug.

Everyone laughed.

As the afternoon crawled along, the other lawmakers drifted out. Pelosi walked back to her office. Baucus retreated to his hideaway office in the Senate. Finally Rangel materialized. The reporters badgered him with questions about health care and the economy as he walked past the House chamber and into Statuary Hall.

Rangel told the assemblage he planned to submit the House Democrats’ health care bill to the Congressional Budget Office for analysis on Friday. The chairman then ducked into the Speaker’s office.

The reporters started to leave. But then Rangel spun around and returned for just a moment.

“And thanks to all of you for not asking about the other thing,” he said, referring to Carter’s resolution.

“Well, tell us about the ‘other thing?’” I queried.

And with that, Rangel fell silent and disappeared back into the Speaker’s Office.

– Chad Pergram covers Congress for FOX News. He’s earned an Edward R. Murrow Award and the Joan Barone Award for his reporting on Capitol Hill.

-  The Speaker’s Lobby refers to a long, ornate corridor that runs behind the dais of  the House chamber. Lawmakers, aides and journalists often confer there during votes.