Insight. Antics.

Shame Doesn’t Work Like It Used To.

In Politics on August 2, 2010 at 5:23 pm

Fresh off my “Qantas leap” from Australia, with my circadian rhythms still a bit off-tempo, I’ve taken renewed notice of the ethics charges against prominent Democratic House members Charlie Rangel and Maxine Waters. If they had their druthers, liberals would hit them and others hard over this. But of course, expedience is trumping morality. (Fear not, a piece on the parallels between Aussie and US history is still in the cards.)

It used to be that you just had to look out for the usual suspects in politics. As George Carlin said, “Smug, greedy, well-fed white people [who] have created a language to conceal their sins.” But corruption is no longer limited to the good ‘ol boys. Sure, old white men are the stereotype, and still the majority of our legislators, but they are not alone in their shadowy dealings. Today it is apparently old black people who wear reading glasses that we should be watching.

Rangel’s appearance makes Al Sharpton look classy. Plus he has the voice of a Jewish grandmother. I half-expect him to offer me more rugelach every time he talks. “Oh and make sure to try the hamantashen, bubbelah!”

Rangel is facing 13 charges, some of which may constitute a felony, “including his improper use of his office to solicit donations for a City University of New York center to be named in his honor; his failure to report rental income from his villa in the Dominican Republic and to pay taxes on it; his omission of some $600,000 in assets on his House financial disclosure forms; and his acceptance from a Manhattan developer of four rent-stabilized apartments, one of which he used as a campaign office.”

He sounds truly oblivious and insulated from the realities of his actions in the clip below, in which MSNBC’s Luke Russert asks him if he fears losing his job. In the longer version, Rangel even says this investigation “couldn’t have come at a better time” for him! What’s he putting inside those rugelach? Opium?

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Waters’ case is not flattering, but it is more a singular conflict of interest issue than a history of blatant wrongs. She appears to have tried to help bailout a regional bank that her husband is a stockholder and one-time board member of. The request for the bank was $50 million. Plenty of banks have gotten public funds in the last two years, so this doesn’t really phase me. Banks should be allowed to fail, but at a time when all the big dogs were getting 100 times that amount so that the world didn’t fall apart, this seems like a big fuss.

Andrea Mitchell was discussing the Rangel/Waters cases on her program this week and there were foul cries about the seemingly random application of the rules. For instance, the purportedly un-kosher tactics employed by Nevada Republican Senator John Ensign in attempts to placate his mistress’ husband and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell in collecting funds for the “McConnell Center for Political Leadership” at the University of Louisville in his native Kentucky have not received the same scrutiny as Rangel and Waters’ conduct. God, is it just me or does Rangel and Waters sounds like a freewheelin’ plumbing agency?

Vodpod videos no longer available.

The charges against Rangel began unraveling the summer before Obama was elected. Six Dems have asked Rangel step down from his post since. Congressional candidate Reshma Saujani, who I’ve now met, is also in favor of chucking Rangel from DC. (By the way, seriously, Carolyn Maloney, do you really have the gall to not debate her, your first primary challenger in 18 years?) His refusal to do so, or strike a deal (thus avoiding a publicity-grabbing ethics trial a month before the midterm elections), is frustrating Democrats around the country. Indeed, Rangel and Waters’ obstinence is screwing the party in an already challenging milieu. Politically, they should both step back and look beyond themselves.

But they’re not. Part of it is stubbornness. And part of it is that the worst-case scenarios for them are simply not that bad.

All of the “consequences” for  trangresssions in Congress are about the same. One is “censure.” Another was added later: “reprimand.” It has less teeth than a censure. It’s the verbal equivalent of a slap on the wrist. In fact, it may be more like a tap since it doesn’t leave a mark.

While censure is worse than reprimand, both require simple majority votes. In either case, the House reads a statement formally disapproving of the behavior of the individual in question and then moves on about its business. The only difference is with censure the Representative has to stand in the well of the House to take the chiding. As the Times’ puts it,”A reprimand is considered a moderate punishment, more serious than the minor sanction of admonishment but not especially severe.”

(The House actually censured a guy named Joshua Reed Giddings for making antislavery comments in 1842. That’s right, he was speaking out against slavery and got an official talking-to for it!)

It’s also worth noting that we  do not stand for the questionable personal decisions politicians make even when we would naturally make those same decisions in our own lives. Case-in-point: John Kerry has taken some flak for parking his $7 million yacht in Massachusetts’ cute little neighbor Rhode Island, supposedly to avoid $500,000 in taxes. (To be fair, I think people are equally pissed that he owns a $7 million yacht.) But maybe he just likes Newport? It’s a beautiful city with a rich nautical history and a great place to make berth for a summer voyage. What Kerry is doing is not illegal. It just looks hypocritical for a wealthy Senator to skirt his home state’s taxes. And now, he has even conceded to paying the difference on political principle (if such a thing even exists). Not for nothing, but I don’t think most people I know, upon learning that instead of docking a boat in Nantucket could do the same in Newport for half a million dollars less, would flinch.

Let’s face it, shaming people doesn’t work the way it used to, unless you’re John Kerry. Rangel and Waters are contesting the charges, so they may care a bit to not have their names officially dragged through the mud, but clearly not enough to refrain from engaging in questionable and in some cases criminal activities.

These parliamentary punishments must have been much more effective in the olden days. If they weren’t, we probably would never have seen tar and featherings or official insults decreed in the public square before them.

Finally, the nuclear option in Congressional ethics, requiring a two-thirds vote, is expulsion. It’s practically unheard of. In the history of the Union, only five members have ever been ousted from the House. I feel pretty confident saying there are more than five worthy of that disgraced status. I’m not saying Waters deserves to be thrown out (though a case could be made more easily for Rangel) but there has to be something else beyond these inadequate punishments. Why not fines?

In the NBA, when a player or coach says or does something stupid, the next business day they wake up to a Commissioner David Stern-endorsed $25,000+ fine, (which for them is like half a day’s allowance). Don’t you think a similar forfeit of personal wealth or campaign donations would keep our elected officials in line? Imagine having to tell your donors that their cherished contributions were confiscated because you lied on your taxes or paid for sex?

Of course, the problem is in order to enact any more serious consequences for “conduct unbecoming,” the Congress itself would have to draft them. Not bloody likely that they are going to up the ante on themselves, especially since a set of ethics reforms were made recently; Obama championed them in the Senate.

An independent ethics watchdog was not in style then and likely would not be now. Maybe there is some way in which the courts can intervene. They declared their rule over constitutionality in the Congress once (Marbury v. Madison), why not over say, right and wrong? Oh wait, that intrusion into the normal, corrupt dealings of the country’s legislative body would still be attacked as egregious activist judging. Sonuvabitch, this is a toughie. I mean, we can’t just do the easy thing… and get more noble Representatives.

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