Pelosi to let Rangel keep post as GOP steps up its attacks on tax returns

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) will let Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) keep his chairmanship despite his failing to report hundreds of thousands of dollars in assets on federal disclosure forms, according to Democratic aides.

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The chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee’s latest misstep has received strong media scrutiny and prompted good-government watchdog groups to call for a special counsel investigation.

Growing ethical turmoil surrounding Rangel has prompted calls for Pelosi to yank Rangel’s gavel. Rep. Darrel Issa (R-Calif.) on Wednesday called on Rangel to release his tax returns. He also said Democratic leaders should yank Rangel’s Ways and Means chairmanship if he refuses or if the returns show tax reporting violations.

“There’s enough [failures to disclose assets] that it’s starting to look more like a pattern…the public has a right to know if he pays his taxes and if he has a pattern of not paying his taxes,” Issa said in an interview with The Hill. “If he failed to file his taxes in any of these circumstances, he should not be allowed to be the chairman of the tax-writing committee.”

But Democratic aides say that Pelosi will not pressure Rangel to resign his post or censure him publicly unless the House ethics committee finds him guilty of misconduct or a prosecutor brings charges.

Aides cited various reasons for Pelosi holding her fire.

First, she does not want to be seen as interfering with the ethics committee probe by stepping in before it reaches a conclusion.

“You do not want to undermine the bipartisan ethics committee process,” said a senior Democratic aide. “Under Republican control, the ethics panel has been broken for many years. Individuals on that committee are now committed to doing their jobs and they’re investigating all aspects.

“We don’t know where they are in the process,” the aide added.

In addition, the Speaker does not want to set the precedent of penalizing a colleague because of transgressions alleged in media reports. Rangel’s failure to disclose hundreds of thousand of dollars in assets and income, including rental income from a Harlem townhouse, were covered in recent days by The New York Times, New York Post and other publications.

“There has to be more of a standard than that,” said a second Democratic aide in reference to those reports. “She is concerned about setting a bad precedent.”

Third, there is not an obvious successor on the powerful Ways and Means Committee, which has jurisdiction over all tax issues.

The second-ranking Democrat, Rep. Pete Stark (Calif.), has a history of controversial statements. Stark suggested last week that Democratic centrists who have demanded changes to healthcare reform are “brain-dead” and angling for insurance company contributions.

Rep. Sandy Levin (Mich.), the third-ranking Democrat, is considered by some as not “dynamic” enough to lead the committee, while fourth-ranking Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) was reprimanded in 2006 for his conduct as a member of the ethics committee during its investigation of former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.).

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There is also the danger of alienating members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), a large bloc of liberals in the Democratic Caucus. Many of them take pride in the fact that one of their members sits atop Ways and Means.

Pelosi may be tempted to replace Rangel as chairman with Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), another CBC member, but Lewis ranks fifth on the panel.

Pelosi’s willingness to wait for the ethics panel to finish its investigation of Rangel has frustrated good-government watchdog groups.

“If they can’t get their act together, then certainly the Democratic leadership should step in,” said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, in reference to the ethics panel’s time-consuming probe.

“If you come in on a platform of cleaning up corruption, you can’t excuse members of your own caucus,” Sloan said of Democratic leaders. “It’s not sufficient to talk about the other party misdeeds; you have to hold your own party accountable, and the Democrats are really failing to do that.”

Democrats captured the House in 2006 after pledging on the campaign trail to “drain the swamp” and clean up after several corruption scandals rocked the GOP-controlled Congress.

Mary Boyle of Common Cause said: “We think it’s an outrage that the probe has gone on for far too long.”

But Democratic insiders don’t expect the ethics investigation to finish anytime soon.

Other experts say that Pelosi is right to wait until the ethics committee reports its findings.

“At least until such time as there’s a conclusion from the ethics committee, there isn’t grounds for removing Rangel on the basis of allegations; he deserves some due process,” said Craig Holman of Public Citizen. “The ethics committee is moving forward. I hope they come out with a fair and thorough judgment. We need this House ethics committee to function.”

Holman noted that Rangel’s failure to report all his assets and income came to light because he recently amended public disclosure forms that contained incomplete or inaccurate information.

Rangel also called last year for the ethics panel to investigate his personal finances after he was confronted by several allegations, such as accepting a rent-stabilized apartment from a Manhattan developer and failing to report and pay taxes for rental income for a vacation home in the Dominican Republic.

Rangel has attributed his accounting mistakes to sloppiness and has faulted the press for sensationalizing what he considers oversights.

That defense notwithstanding, political experts say that the controversy surrounding Rangel is a political liability for Democrats at a time when Congress’s approval rating hovers around 30 percent and some predict the party could lose 20 or more House seats.

“Parties get defined by members who are in the news,” said Darrell West, the director of Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. “If you have an ethical cloud surrounding certain individuals, opponents are going to use that to make the party look bad.”

West said that Republicans are “salivating” at the prospect of using Rangel to tar the Democrats as a group, but that there is not much Pelosi can do.

“I’m not sure the Speaker can do very much,” he said. “You’re talking about a very powerful senior member of the party. I don’t think she can kick him out. The Speaker would never do that just based on news stories. It would take legal action to lead any party leader to call for that kind of step.”

Susan Crabtree contributed to this report.

This story was updated at 10:06 a.m.

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