Walter Rhett

Rangel and Waters: Will There be Fairness in the Cheers and Jeers?

In National Affairs, Perlo on August 3, 2010 at 6:01 pm
Charleston, SC
August 3rd, 2010
10:05 am
First a story about political sentiment: Benjamin Franklin at the end of the American Revolution was one of five men charged with making peace with England and France. He wrote South Carolina’s Henry Laurens, who was in poor health, to urge him to come to Paris to work on the treaty. Franklin said he wanted Laurens because feeling was high and no matter what the final terms of peace were, no one would be happy. Laurens, he said, understood this. He would have the courage and wisdom to not be shaken or concerned about his own skin as the negotiations moved toward final terms satisfactory to the nations involved, but wildly unpopular among their citizens.

For very different reasons, Charles Rangel and Maxine Waters find themselves in Henry Laurens’ place. Public sentiment about the actions of public officials, in this case not expectation, but dissatisfaction, is high. Congress is seen as an institution which has lost faith with the voters; it is widely perceived to manipulate laws and appropriations to serve special interests, especially corporations and wealthy benefactors. It is seen as lacking common courage, but obsessed with greed and self-aggrandizement. Many think Congress is pillaging the country, stunting economic growth and costing jobs by piling up debt. It doesn’t help the arcane rules of procedure in both houses have resulted in bills being passed by what many also see as slick tricks and backroom deals.

In this poisoned atmosphere–evident and prevalent in the comment stream on this article!–Rep. Rangel and Waters stand before their peers accused. They face no only ethics charges for actions they took in office (arranging meeting and donations; supporting tax breaks and bail-outs for a benefactor and bank with a family investor), they face a country whose dominant tone is cynicism, which sees dark conspiracies and sleaze in a public officials every move.

The real question, along with Rangeland Waters guilt or innocence, is, how to be fair?
Again, let’s turn to history for a benchmark. Newt Gingrich, while Speaker of the House, was reprimanded, and assessed $300,000 for violating federal tax laws, using tax-free funds for political purposes, and lying to the House Ethics Committee (“presenting false information”) to cover up his illegal scheme. Even though Gingrich was Speaker at the time, only 26 House Republicans voted against the reprimand, one for the reason a “double standard” was being applied–not that he felt the penalty was unfair or inappropriate!

Charles Rangel is not accused of receiving any personal benefit of goods, services, or money for actions taken as a member of Congress; it fact his support of a tax break for a contributor to a college building to be named for Rangel would have benefited all persons in that class, including those who had never given or been solicited. The other charges are procedural(the improper use of Congressional stationary and staff time)or personal (the failure to report income from a Dominican condo and improper use of rent controlled apartments). To what level do these alleged violations rise?

Maxine Waters’ husband invested in and sat on a board of a minority-owned bank that received bail-out funds after a meeting with a public official was initiated by Ms. Waters where other banks were present and represented, and also received modest bail-outs. Is this substantially different from Henry Paulson, the former CEO and Chair of Goldman Sachs, directing bail-out payments that went to Goldman Sachs? (Note: GS paid $4.3 billion of tax payer funds to foreign banks; the bank connected to Waters received $12 million; but ethics is a principle, not a weighed statistic.)

Has the mood of the country created a double standard and a rush to judgement that jettisons careful deliberations for a cynical broad brush? And is that approach really a better way to govern?

Having been stirred up, the country may be clamoring more for scalps than justice. It sad that we as a nation fail to reflect on our history and improve on our follies, which we seemed doomed to repeat.

When it comes to ethics, Congress and the American people have no institutional memory.

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