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Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Representative Rangel as a Cautionary Tale

Ross Baker writes in USA Today about Representative Charles Rangel (D-NY), a senior member facing ethics charges:

Rangel's failure to pay taxes on income property, hoarding rent-controlled Manhattan apartments and leaning on those with business before his committee to kick in for a school named for him is not unusual behavior for those who work amid the heady vapors of power. If all of those around you proclaim you to be the greatest statesman since Pericles, vie for the right to attend your fundraisers, and respond promptly to your most petulant demands, there are literally no limits to your reach.

Highest on the list of votaries of the powerful members of Congress are members of their staffs. These are typically young men and women who aspire to careers in public service or have been seduced by the putative glamour of these jobs that tend, especially at lower levels, to be marked more by drudgery than by dazzle. In many offices, the default posture for staffers is genuflection. Groveling is not unknown. The adoration is often unreciprocated from bosses who, over time, lose the ability to say, "Thank you."

Perhaps it is possible to stay in Congress too long, as he concludes:

What Rangel has brought upon himself has been especially painful for me because I have long admired him for his gruff good humor and stirring personal narrative. But what impressed me most was a vignette I witnessed as a House staff member after the 1982 elections, which rebuked President Reagan by bringing in 26 new Democrats.

I was in the back of the chamber when I noticed Rangel talking animatedly to several newly elected members. He seemed so exercised that I decided to eavesdrop to find out what had so agitated the congressman. He was saying to the newcomers, "You can't do that sort of thing here in Washington. The Justice Department is just up the street. You have to clean up your act, and don't try to put anything over on the FEC (Federal Election Commission)."

Seeing Rangel about to face an embarrassing public trial for his ethical lapses after 20 terms in Congress has caused me to look more suspiciously on the unlimited terms for members of Congress. Only a precious few can bask so continuously in the reverential deference of so many and manage to retain their honesty and, even more important, their humility.