In the larger scheme of national politics, the troubles of one House committee chairman are little more than a sideshow. But in the context of this political moment in this political year, the troubles of Rep. Charles W. Rangel (D-NY) are more than a mere distraction.
Far larger forces are engaged in the struggle over health care and other issues before Congress, and Rangel has been less a key player this past year than he might have been. By November, the image of Rangel's fall may have faded. And certainly the battle for control of Congress will be won and lost on a broader playing field.
Still, impressions of institutions are made of stories and personalities. People remember what they hear or read about cases such as Rangel's, which can easily become emblematic. And for the Democrats, that is problematic. The failure to contain such damage can cost a party its momentum, its mandate and — under certain circumstances — its majority.
Rangel has stepped aside as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, pending the outcome of inquiries by the House ethics committee on a variety of charges, some of which could have legal repercussions beyond the House. He says he will be back; virtually no one outside his operation expects that to happen.
Getting Rangel out of the spotlight for the moment is the best thing his beleaguered party can hope for. But he has already done more than enough — and been unrepentant enough about it — to affect perceptions of the Democrats who run the House. And that practically guarantees he will be featured in Republican attack ads in the fall.
Rangel has already been admonished by the ethics committee, for vacationing in the Caribbean at corporate expense. Still out there are charges that he accepted the use of four rent-controlled apartments in New York City that were owned by a developer. Rangel has not been able to satisfy tax authorities on this matter, nor on unpaid taxes on his property in the Dominican Republic.
All of which looks bad for a guy who runs the committee that writes federal tax law. It's especially embarrassing because the intramural watchdog panels in Congress are not known for their teeth. On the same day this group put the bite on Rangel, they gave a pass to half a dozen other lawmakers who were earmarking appropriations for contributors.
For now, Hill Democrats and the Obama administration have to be grateful that Rangel was not a larger symbol of their party than he has been. When President Clinton was struggling through his first two years in office, he had to deal with the flaming out of another Ways and Means chairman, Dan Rostenkowski. The illustrious "Rosty" had been chairman for a dozen years, working sometimes with and sometimes against Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
He was integral enough to the power structure of that time that he was known to say his committee and the House were one and the same.
But when the Democrats of that era finally got a president of their own in Clinton, Rostenkowski was found to have been engaged in systematic (if relatively petty) abuses of House privileges such as free stamps. His beefy visage became the arrogant face of the 40-year Democratic majority — the caricature of Washington that the Republicans needed in their campaign that ended that majority in 1994. Rostenkowski was among the Democrats defeated that fall, and he later served time in federal prison.
Rangel had been chairman of Ways and Means for just three years, two of which were served with George W. Bush still in the White House and Washington at an impasse. In the past year, Rangel had engineered the tax-cut portion of the stimulus package and made himself important on the climate change bill. But the action on health care was elsewhere, and Rangel himself never became a household name on the national level.
Of course, Rangel's reversal of fortune is a huge story in New York, where he has been a force of nature in Harlem since he deposed the legendary Adam Clayton Powell Jr. in 1970. Rangel was one of a generation of black politicians that has now reached its moment of eclipse. Another was Percy Sutton, who died this winter. One of their contemporaries, Basil Paterson, was the father of New York Gov. David Paterson.
There is no connection between Rangel's current travails and those of Basil Paterson's son, who this week was battling to hold on to his job amid the latest scandal to engulf his administration (and who is no longer running for re-election in November). But there is a sense that an era is passing, and New York will be finding a new generation of leaders.
Rangel remains safe in his own district, for now. But the old Harlem-dominated district is different now, and less than 30 percent African-American. In the next census, it could well be majority Hispanic. By then, it is entirely possible Rangel will have left not only his chairmanship but his seat as well.