By Susan Crabtree - 09/11/09 10:25 AM EDT
Congressional Black Caucus members are standing squarely behind one of their own: embattled Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.).
In separate interviews with The Hill, several members of the CBC, including Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), Rep. Carolyn Kilpatrick (D-Mich.), Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) and Mel Watt (D-N.C.) all expressed unmitigated support for Rangel holding onto the Ways and Means post.
“He’s done a great job as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee and throughout his 30 years in Congress,” Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) said. “I still think we live in a country that believes that people are innocent until proven guilty and he hasn’t been charged or convicted of anything.”
The support from some of those closest to Rangel comes as the longtime lawmaker endures withering criticism from watchdog groups and calls from Republicans and editorial boards for him to resign his chairmanship.
The most recent criticism concerns amended financial disclosure forms that could nearly double Rangel’s net worth. Amended forms showed that Rangel had revealed at least $650,000 in undisclosed income.
Rangel has attributed the omissions to mere sloppiness.
News of the financial disclosures emerged after the House ethics committee had already launched an investigation into Rangel — at his request — over other issues.
Watchdog groups say the recent revelations show a pattern of failing to take ethics rules seriously, and the troubles come at a difficult time for Democrats, as Rangel chairs one of the committees charged with undertaking healthcare reform.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) so far has supported Rangel, however, and on Thursday said he should retain his gavel.
“I do not think he should step aside,” she said.
Rangel has said he has no intention of giving up his gavel. Asked this week whether he would give up the chairmanship, he replied with an emphatic “no way.”
His spokesman later echoed that sentiment in an e-mail: “Congressman Rangel has no intention of stepping down as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, and there is no such announcement pending.”
CBC members are strongly supportive of Rangel.
Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), the fifth most senior member of the Ways and Means panel, has been mentioned as a possible replacement if Rangel decided to step down or was forced out.
But Lewis would not even entertain the idea when asked about it.
“I do not see any change in any time in the future or near future,” he said. “I think it’s important for the ethics committee to play the role it should and be allowed to do its job.
“I think he’s a very strong chairman and has done a great job with the healthcare issue on the committee,” Lewis continued. “Right before the recess, he chaired the committee for several hours — and did it very well.”
Several CBC members took shots at newspapers that have called on Rangel to resign his chairmanship.
“The Washington Post has no say over what we do as members of this body, and they should keep their opinions to themselves,” Rep. Lacy Clay (D-Mo.) remarked.
“The Washington Post doesn’t vote here — the members do!” said a clearly irritated Rep. Corrine Brown (D-Fla.). “In the United States of America, you’re still innocent until proven guilty.”
Other CBC members applauded Rangel’s August move to amend his financial disclosure reports for several years.
“Members amend financial disclosure reports all the time — they are amendable,” said Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-Pa.). “This is what we want members of Congress to do if there are mistakes.”
“I am absolutely, 100 percent supporting of Rangel keeping his chairmanship,” Rush said. “He’s an exemplary member, and I would be very disappointed and heartbroken if he were asked to step down.”
Rangel first requested that the ethics panel investigate him more than a year ago when he acknowledged he failed to disclose to the IRS or on his financial disclosure forms $75,000 in rental income for a beach villa in the Dominican Republic.
Since then, Rangel also has come under fire for claiming three primary residences; for maintaining four rent-controlled apartments; and for using congressional letterhead to solicit donations for an education center bearing his name at City College of New York, which could violate House rules.
Despite the troubles, one member of the CBC who requested anonymity said Rangel continues to be in good spirits. Rangel was “his jolly self” Tuesday night after taking the train down from New York for evening votes, this lawmaker said.
Fattah labeled Republicans calling on Rangel to give up his gavel “hypocrites” because they had refused to advocate for the resignation of several GOP members of Congress who were under investigation by the FBI when Republicans controlled the majority.
Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) sent a letter to Rangel last week asking him to resign his seat.
“That is more than a little hypocritical and contradictory,” Fattah said.
Several CBC members also said they weren’t worried that Rangel’s problems would become a political liability.
“I don’t think anyone sees this as anything more than a witch-hunt,” Fattah said.
Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.), a 28-year House veteran, has served his entire tenure with Rangel, whom he called one of the most effective members in Congress.
“He knows how to pull people together — he’s a coalition-builder,” Towns said. “I would encourage people to look at the whole Rangel.”