The names of Harlem Congressman Charles Rangel and California Congresswoman Maxine Waters are now firmly imprinted in the media and public mind as the poster duo for congressional corruption. They're black, high profile, are ranking Democrats, and they're outspoken. That instantly made them inviting and even dispensable targets. The media crucifixion of Waters and Rangel absolves Congress of taking any real action against its worst offenders. Since the Rangel and Waters imbroglio broke, there's been much wild and loose talk, speculation, rumor, and innuendo that Waters and Rangel will, take your pick: resign, cut a deal, receive a reprimand, or a censure, or the most absurd of all, be expelled.
But the record still stands that the only congressperson in the last century officially expelled from Congress was then-Rep. Jim Traficant in 2002. His expulsion was a pro-forma act. Traficant had already been convicted on federal corruption charges and been sentenced to prison. Harlem Congressman Adam Clayton Powell was not expelled. He was "excluded" from taking his seat and censured in 1967 for his misdeeds.
Then there's the much publicized case of then GOP House majority leader Tom DeLay. DeLay is often cited as an example of a fearless Congress cracking down on its ethics violators even when the violator is one of its highest ranking and highest profile members. But Delay became a prime target only because the media ran endless stories picking apart every aspect of the paper trail of his influence peddling and sordid financial dealings. Delay's dirt became a media cause célèbre. Congress could not afford to ignore him. Despite the near smoking gun proof of his malfeasance, the ethics committee did not censure or expel him, but simply let the committee report it issued that spelled out the violations of House rules serve as his punishment.
Making Rangel and Waters the poster duo for political corruption also conveniently takes the glare of scrutiny off of the dozens of other Congresspersons not named Rangel and Waters that are just as deserving, if not more so than them of being plopped on the political hot seat. The twenty-seven other congresspersons named as being under investigation for possible ethics violations were made public last October. Then a congressional staffer leaked a summary of a preliminary report of the ethics committee on possible violations and the possible violators. The committee made it clear that the suspect congresspersons had not been formally charged with anything and that the investigations were merely preliminary. But the charges under investigation were not all for petty offenses. The checklist of charges included allegations of sweetheart arrangements with lobbyists, illicit campaign and finance dealings, questionable receipt gifts, tax reporting questions, and failure to disclose property and gifts.
There were two glaring reasons why the names of the two dozen other congresspersons under investigation are not known and Rangel and Waters' names are. The others have no national name or media recognition. They are relatively low on the congressional seniority totem pole. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the House Democratic Leadership can't wave their names to the press and the public and get the tongues wagging and stoke public fury about their alleged misdeeds. House Democrats can't self-righteously and falsely claim that the ethics rules work, the ethics committee is doing its job, and that House Democrats can police their own. And then when the press and the cameras go away, quietly cut a deal with both to make the issue and public attention on them go away before any real damage is done to Democrats with the fall elections looming.
The hitch in the plan is that Republicans may hold Rangel hostage for the elections. The report is that they have told Rangel "no deal" to his offer to cop a plea to some of the charges in exchange for a reprimand only. Waters has flatly said there will be "no deal." This may not have been part of the carefully scripted plan by Democrats to use Rangel and Waters as bait to snag a disbelieving and hostile public into cheering them for cleaning up corruption among them. No matter how things shake out, don't expect to see any other names on the rogue's list of Congressional ethics violator suspects than Rangel and Waters.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He hosts a nationally broadcast political affairs radio talk show on Pacifica and KTYM Radio Los Angeles.
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