Almost exactly a year ago, members of Congress voted overwhelmingly to censure their colleague Rep. Charlie Rangel for bringing dishonor on the House. Then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi summoned the New York Democrat to the well and chastised him for his 11 ethics violations, which included improper fundraising.
This week, Rangel again brought the House into disrepute – but this time he had the full support of his colleagues.
“Last night marked a momentous evening in my campaign for re-election,” Rangel wrote in a letter to supporters on Thursday. “At a special event in Washington, Democratic leaders including Nancy Pelosi, Steny Hoyer, James Clyburn, Sandy Levin, John Conyers, Emmanuel Cleaver, and Steve Israel stood by my side and pledged their unwavering support on my behalf. I am so humbled and grateful for their involvement.”
As further evidence of how he had gone from opprobrium to affirmation, Rangel attached an article from Politico headlined “What Censure? Rangel’s Back.” The article included quotes from Rangel taunting the House ethics committee members and saying his censure was all for show.
It’s hard to quarrel with Rangel’s reasoning. The fete Wednesday night at the upscale Bistro Bis, near Union Station, was a way for House Democrats to demonstrate that their punishment of the defrocked Ways and Means committee chairman was insincere. By attending the up-to-$5,000-per-ticket soiree, they were proclaiming that all was forgiven.
The public is not nearly so forgiving. The Rangel party — where lobbyists and other influence seekers paid to gain access to, and favor among, party leaders — goes a long way toward explaining why Americans’ approval of Congress has dropped to 9 percent.
The speedy rehabilitation of the first member of the House to be censured in nearly three decades is a symptom of what has destroyed trust in government and the ability of that government to function. As Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig, an ethics specialist, put it to me this week: “Who would ever trust such a system?” And “how can this government continue to behave like this?”