Obama Needs to Rap Rangel -- Hard

Washington Matters

Obama Needs to Rap Rangel -- Hard

No one likes piling on, but if Barack Obama doesn't join with those who are criticizing House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charlie Rangel for questionable financial arrangements, he may as well give up any pretense about being the candidate of change.

Rangel is a Washington fixture, a charming and beloved one in many Democratic circles, and a respected leader of the Congressional Black Caucus who has served his Harlem district for nearly four decades.

He's also making himself the near stereotype of the entitled politician. The Washington Post reported today that Rangel has solicited contributions for an academic center that will bear his name and house his papers. He used congressional stationery to ask for money from individuals and companies that have business before his committee. And just hours after that story hit the streets, Rangel's office announced that he will move his campaign office out of a subsidized apartment that abuts three other rent-stabilized luxury apartments that he and his family live in. In an arrangement first disclosed by the New York Times, all of the apartments rent for well under half the likely market rate and are controlled by a developer.

Maintaining an office there is a clear violation of state and city rules requiring that rent-stabilized apartments be used only as a primary residence, so giving it up was a no brainer. Otherwise, Rangel says he sees nothing wrong with taking advantage of rental rules and subsidies used by thousands, if not millions, of New Yorkers. He defends the fund-raising for his center by saying he would support the project whether his name was on it or not. Besides, he doesn't discuss congressional business when raising money. Rangel says his integrity has never been questioned during his career, and he's right about that.

I actually believe that Rangel sees nothing wrong with these arrangements. And that's the problem. Those long in power become blind to perks and privileges accorded to them but available to no ordinary citizen. So when such goodies come from or are sought from those who could benefit from a lawmaker's influence, politicians all too often just don't see the problem.

But Americans do. That's a chief reason that so many have grown so exasperated by and cynical about politics and government, which they see as a big fancy club that they will never get to join.

Obama originally caught fire, in part, by deriding a government that had grown so alienated from the governed. And so did his GOP opponent, John McCain. Which is why it's important that Obama jump on the Rangel nonsense well before McCain does. While Rangel supported Hillary Clinton in the primaries, he supports Obama now. Moreover, he would be in charge of one of the most important and powerful committees in Congress -- the one that originates bills raising or lowering taxes -- that Obama would have to work with if he gets elected president.

Precisely because Rangel is a colleague, friend, supporter and influential congressional elder, Obama needs to hold him and these incidents up as an example to the country as the type of behavior that, within the letter of the law or not,  simply cannot and will not be tolerated by a Democratic Party that repeatedly promises to take the government back from special interests.

And Rangel should respond by doing the right thing -- by giving up those apartments, giving back contributions for the Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service and apologizing to the public and his constituents for being so blind to the appearance of conflict of interest. If Rangel hesitates, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democratic House leaders should make clear that obstinacy would put his chairmanship at risk. That would be real change.

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