An ethics investigation forces Rep. Charlie Rangel to choose between his party and his job.

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July 29 2010 6:43 PM

Rangel Agonistes

Charlie Rangel chooses between his party and his job.

Charlie Rangel. Click image to expand.
Charlie Rangel

Rep. Charlie Rangel had to decide on Thursday which he cares about more: his party or his job.

The answer, for now: his job. As the House ethics committee prepared to read its 13 charges against Rangel—the culmination of a two-year investigation—there was a flurry of reports that Rangel would strike a deal with the committee and thereby avoid an embarrassing trial in September. But the deal didn't materialize in time, and the hearing proceeded. Rangel, a 20-term Democrat, could still strike a bargain, but it would require approval from one of the committee's five Republicans. And during the hearing, at least, they didn't sound ready to make a deal. "Congressman Rangel was given the opportunity to negotiate a settlement in the investigation phase," said Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, the committee's ranking Republican. "We are now in the trial phase."

The prospect of a September trial represents a Worst Case Scenario for Democrats. It would showcase a prominent Democrat's alleged ethical failings two months before the midterm elections, boosting the GOP case that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has failed in her promise to "drain the swamp" of corruption in Washington. (The 13 charges include allegations that he used public rent-controlled housing for campaign work, failed to report $75,000 in income on a villa in the Dominican Republic, and used congressional letterhead to solicit donations for a City College educational center named after him.) Some Democrats have quietly pushed Rangel to make a deal. At least three have urged him to resign.

But Rangel seems to think he has a shot at winning. All along, he has insisted that he didn't intentionally break any House rules or statutes. And that may well be true. A plea deal would probably require him to admit wrongdoing.

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While it's understandable that he doesn't want to end a remarkable four-decade career under a cloud—especially if he didn't mean to break any laws—Rangel has only made life harder for fellow Democrats, and on himself. From day one, he has lashed out at anyone who questioned him about the alleged violations. When a New York Times reporter called to ask about the rent-controlled apartments in 2008, Rangel replied, "Why should I help you embarrass me?" and hung up. Later that year, when the Times reported that Rangel met with an oil company CEO who had donated $1 million to the Rangel Center on the same day that Rangel's committee approved a loophole worth millions of dollars to the company, Rangel fired back at the Times.

He downplayed the allegations to the end. In its report, the House ethics committee notes two instances in which Rangel claimed that the allegations were ginned up by the press—even after the committee had notified him of its charges. The report also faults Rangel for repeatedly delaying the investigation. Just last week, Rangel bristled when NBC's Luke Russert asked him whether he feared losing his job over the allegations, calling it a "dumb question" and accusing Russert of "trying to make copy."

Sure, Rangel might be no better off if he'd been more polite. But the outbursts earned him no goodwill. Moreover, they gave the impression that he thinks this kind of behavior—failing to report taxes, handouts for donors—is no big deal. That makes it hard for the Democratic leadership to claim it is cracking down on corruption and boosting transparency. (Rangel stepped down from the Ways and Means chairmanship in March.)

There were signs today that Rangel has lost his bluster. He spoke to reporters at the Capitol Thursday more in sadness than in anger. "Sixty years ago, I survived a Chinese attack in North Korea, and as a result I haven't had a bad day since," he said. "But today, I have to reassess that statement." Meanwhile, he has been blunt with Democrats, telling them to save themselves rather than risk their reputations to defend him. "I know you love me," Rangel told a Democratic colleague. "But love yourself more."What he has yet to realize, apparently, is that their fates are inextricably linked. If he goes down, so do they.

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Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.

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