Rangel verdict is no triumph for Ethics Committee

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  • Dale Eisman

Congress must find better way to police itself

Today’s findings by a panel of the House Ethics Committee that Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY) was guilty of 11 ethical violations may reassure members that their system of ethical discipline is alive and well.

That would be a mistake.

It took two years and thousands of staff working hours and legal bills for Mr. Rangel in excess of $1.6 million to establish facts that seemed clear at the outset and in the end were not disputed. The finding, as the committee prosecutor said Monday, was that Mr. Rangel was sloppy but not corrupt.

While no member should have to endure such an ordeal, much of the delay must be blamed on Mr. Rangel.

If the full committee and later the full House reprimand him, as is likely, Mr. Rangel will emerge with his reputation stained but his seat safe. Already there are hints that he will attempt to reclaim a leadership role on the Ways and Means Committee, which helps write the nation’s tax laws. Part of Mr. Rangel’s ethical troubles, of course, stem from his apparent failure to fully report his taxable income.

While Mr. Rangel has been embarrassed, and his campaign treasury depleted, the House has again demonstrated its inability to efficiently but fairly police itself. There’s no good reason why it should have taken so long to bring a relatively simple case to a head.

Given all this, it is troubling that the incoming Republican majority, with substantial Democratic backing, is said to be preparing to close down the Office of Congressional Ethics, an independent watchdog created just two years ago to handle ethics investigations.

The OCE had no involvement in the Rangel matter because it didn’t exist when the case arose. In its brief life, it has fielded thousands of public inquiries about Congressional conduct and investigated more than five dozen ethical complaints. Unlike the Ethics Committee, it has worked with both speed and care and without a hint of partisanship.

And yet, the OCE is on the chopping block. Its departure virtually ensures that future allegations of Congressional misconduct will be handled with the same clumsiness and partisanship that has marked the Rangel affair. No wonder so many Americans are furious with the ways of Washington.