12/01/2010 09:39 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

On Rangel: To Be Just, Congress Must Be Fair

Let me be clear: My objection to the House censure of Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) is not about race or politics. It's about fairness.

This is neither a defense nor an indictment of Rangel. That split decision has already been rendered by the people of Harlem in his strong reelection results; and by the House ethics committee in its recommendation for censure. I have no quarrel with the committee's finding that he violated a number of its rules and deserves a proper sanction. But I also agree with his Harlem constituents, who, by their overwhelming vote on Nov. 2, reaffirmed a bedrock principle of American justice: Punishment should fit the wrong.

On Nov. 16, an ethics subcommittee found Rangel in violation of 11 House ethics rules -- ranging from using the wrong stationery to solicit funds for a public university in his district to using a rent-stabilized apartment as an office. Monday, the committee sent its censure resolution to the House floor -- meaning a full House vote could occur within days.

It should be clear, however, that there were no findings of corruption, criminal wrongdoing or any act for personal gain.

A review of past cases makes it obvious that Rangel's recommended punishment is unfair and disproportionate. As the noted conservative columnist and lifelong Republican Ben Stein recently wrote, "Rangel's misdeeds seem like extremely trivial matters."

The Ethics Committee indeed found nothing to suggest Rangel is corrupt. He took no bribes, never lied under oath, did not harass any employees nor abuse his office for personal gain. While some of his past behavior was "sloppy" -- as he himself has admitted -- he broke no laws.

In addition, the chairwoman and the ranking Republican member of the ethics committee explicitly stated that Rangel did not seek "any direct financial gain." In the chief counsel's words, there was "no evidence of corruption."

History is littered with House members who were reprimanded (a lesser punishment than censure) despite violations more serious than those Rangel faced. For example, in 1976, Rep. Robert L.F. Sikes was reprimanded for failure to disclose personal interests in official matters and for apparent use of his office to further his personal financial interests. In 1984, Rep. George V. Hansen was reprimanded for false statements on financial disclosure forms. And in 1997, House Speaker Newt Gingrich received a reprimand for allowing a member-affiliated tax-exempt organization to be used for political purposes.

By contrast, censures have been reserved for far more serious violations, including treasonous conduct, bribery and sexual misconduct. I was a House page in 1989 and served with a page who was among the first allowed to work for a congressman after his 1983 censure for sexual misconduct with a page. I remember the pall that hung over that office years later.

I agreed with the vote for censure in that case and still do today. It fit the violation.

In determining proper sanctions for member violations, the ethics committee's guiding principle has always been the nature of the violations -- a principle explicitly contradicted here. The committee has also traditionally weighed mitigating factors.

If these principles were applied here, it would have been clear that Rangel's offenses may have risen to the level of a letter of reproval. But certainly not censure.

Mitigating factors not considered include the loss of his chairmanship of the Ways and Means Committee, his public admission of mistakes, his damaged reputation and long legacy of patriotic sacrifice. That legacy includes 40 years of outstanding service to the people of Harlem. It includes putting his life on the line for democracy here at home during the 1965 voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery. And it includes exemplary courage on a Korean War battlefield, where he earned a Bronze Star.

Any member of Congress who has violated ethics rules must be disciplined, including Rangel. In doing so, however, Congress must always be fair and consistent in ensuring that the punishment fit the violation.

Cross-posted from Politico