Why is House Speaker Nancy Pelosi refusing a growing chorus of calls to drop the hammer on ethics-challenged Charlie Rangel?
Because, at the moment, doing nothing creates a lot less trouble for Pelosi than doing anything, current and former House aides tell POLITICO.
Stripping the Harlem Democrat of his chairmanship of the House Ways and Means Committee would force Pelosi to make a series of unpalatable decisions about Rangel’s successor that would create a ruckus in the Democratic caucus.
It would also infuriate the Congressional Black Caucus, which is still sore over Pelosi’s decision to strip committees from former Louisiana Rep. Bill Jefferson – even after Jefferson had been found with a wad of tainted cash in his kitchen.
“Unless they find $90,000 in his freezer, like they did with Jefferson, we’re going to wait [for the outcome of a House ethics probe],” said a Democratic aide familiar with Pelosi’s thinking on the matter.
Staffers say the speaker has been so focused on the health care battle that she simply hasn’t devoted much time to Rangel’s recent troubles – and there’s no push among House Democrats to heed the fire-Rangel cries of Republicans, the New York Times, Washington Post and Buffalo News.
“She hasn’t even spoken to the congressman about this latest episode,” said a close Rangel associate, referring to recent published reports that the 78-year-old Rangel underreported his assets by hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“The speaker is totally behind him, and she told him that the last few times they have spoken,” the person added.
Rangel has told supporters he’s committed to running for re-election next year and plans to run again in 2012 – when he’s 82 — health permitting.
Pelosi’s inaction isn’t without risks.
Rangel’s troubles, coupled with the equally embarrassing ethics problems of another Pelosi-allied Old Bull, Rep. Jack Murtha (D-Penn.), could damage the Democratic brand in the midterms.
If Pelosi were to supplant Rangel, she’d face the prospect of choosing from a unappetizing menu of potential replacements at the Ways and Means helm.
“There are not a lot of good choices for her on that committee,” said a leadership aide.
The next Democrat in line would be Pete Stark, an outspoken 77-year-old liberal with a firebrand reputation and a penchant for intemperate cracks – like calling Blue Dog Democrats “brain dead.”
Next up: Michigan Rep. Sander Levin, also 77, and Washington Rep. Jim McDermott, 72, who are not considered favored choices of Pelosi based on their ages and temperaments.
The two most desirable substitutes from leadership’s perspective, staffers say, are Georgia Rep. John Lewis, 69, the civil rights hero, whose appointment would assuage Black Caucus anger at Rangel’s ouster; and Massachusetts Rep. Richard Neal, 60, a tax expert who is a favorite of his colleagues.
In late August, the slowest news period of the year, Rangel filed updated financial disclosure reports showing he failed to report more than $660,000 in assets during 2007, a potential violation of House ethics rules.
The ethics panel has already spent a year peering into Rangel’s use of several rent-stabilized apartments in a luxury Harlem apartment complex, his failure to pay all taxes on a Dominican Republic vacation villa, and his use of Congressional letterhead to raise funds for the Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service at City College in New York City.
The committee recently broadened the investigation to include Caribbean trips taken by Rangel and four other lawmakers to determine if they complied with a ban on corporate-funded travel.
The GOP, dogged by scandals when it had the majority, has pounced on the Rangel situation to level hypocrisy charges at Pelosi – who famously promised to “drain the swamp” of Congressional corruption.