7:46 am Aug. 16, 2010
To most national observers, Charlie Rangel’s rambling, defiant 38-minute House floor speech last week was baffling.
Here was a member of Congress who had admitted failing to pay $75,000 in taxes, and omitting hundreds of thousands of dollars in assets from disclosure forms. But there was no evident contrition, no attempt at explanation, no apparent concern for how it all looked—just semi-coherent blathering about internal House processes and procedures. Didn’t he realize how poisonous this was in the court of public opinion, for himself and his party?
Actually, the moment said quite a bit about the calculations that have guided the actions of Rangel and other prominent black members of Congress for decades. It's a long story with deep historical roots, and it's about race.
When Rangel claimed his seat back in 1971, he was part of the first major wave of black congressional representation since the end of Reconstruction, when the advent of Jim Crow disenfranchised the South’s black population. It wasn’t until 1928 that another black member was elected to the House, and when the same Harlem-based district that would eventually elect Rangel sent Adam Clayton Powell to Congress in 1944, it was only the second district in America to elect an African-American since Reconstruction.
With the addition of Rangel and three other black Democrats in ’70, the black membership of the House swelled to 12. The Voting Rights Act had been passed five years earlier, but they owed their victories to other forces: the Great Migration, the abandonment by African Americans of the Jim Crow South for cities in the North; and white flight, in which the white ethnic residents of those northern cities fled for the suburbs in reaction to the Great Migration. Notably, neither Rangel nor any of the 11 other African-Americans in the House in 1971 represented southern states.
This was both empowering and limiting for Rangel and his colleagues: empowering because they were able to band together to form the Congressional Black Caucus and exercise real influence in the House (it was Rangel who in 1975 led the C.B.C.’s successful effort to force Speaker Carl Albert to appoint at least one African-American to every major House committee); but limiting because they were acutely aware of the unofficial—but very real—ceiling on their career growth.
The House, after all, has long functioned as something of a farm system for aspiring senators. Ambitious congressmen spend a few terms building their profiles and raising cash, waiting for a good shot at the world’s most exclusive club. But this was never an option for Rangel and the black Democrats that came in with him. The circumstances that made their elections to the House possible precluded it. In these officials, white suburbanites saw the reason they had moved to suburbia. For the same reason, gubernatorial campaigns were out of the question, too. As were the top party leadership posts in the House.
The path to power for Rangel and his fellow C.B.C. members, then, was through the House’s seniority system: stick around long enough, and eventually you’ll find yourself holding a gavel. As Rangel himself put it long ago: “We don’t really think that racism in this country has so diminished that given the opportunity to vote on individuals based on their experience and ability that we could overcome that without the assistance of the seniority system.”
The ’75 deal with Albert was a big step in this direction, putting African-American members in at least theoretical position to lead the House’s most powerful committees at some point in the future. Here, white flight actually helped, too, making the districts of C.B.C. members more uniformly black and Democratic and insulating them from serious general-election threats.
This made it easier for the minority members to climb the seniority ladder. In poor election climates for their party, Democrats from marginal districts would lose their seats, while C.B.C members would win re-election with ease, gaining a few valuable rungs in committee seniority. The average black Democrat elected between 1964 and 2004 served more than 10 years in the House—nearly two years longer than the average for all other members.
Extensions of the Voting Rights Act in 1975 and 1982 brought more blacks to Congress, according protected status to districts like Rangel’s and spurring the creation of majority-black districts in the South, but the reality for most C.B.C. members didn’t change: re-election in their districts was a cinch, statewide electorates viewed them warily, and the seniority system was still the only real ticket to power.
This may be the best way to understand how Rangel became enmeshed in the current ethics drama, and why his response was so inexplicable to anyone not familiar with his district.
By the mid-1990s, he’d finally climbed to the top Democratic perch on the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, needing only a Democratic takeover of the House to earn the gavel, and achieve the goal he’d set when he struck his deal with Albert back in ’75. That moment arrived with the election of 2006, which certified Rangel, then 76 years old, as one of the most powerful insiders in Washington. It should have been a celebratory moment for him, and at first it was, but the ethics charges soon came, ultimately forcing him to step down as chairman this past March. No matter the outcome of the current ethics committee inquest, Rangel will never again wield the Ways and Means gavel.
It’s hard not to see the scandal as a product of the sloppiness, corner-cutting and just plain indifference that comes from decade after decade of effortless re-election campaigns. The closest thing to a political scare Rangel ever experienced (before this year) came in 1994, when Adam Clayton Powell IV challenged him in the Democratic primary. Rangel won that race with nearly 70 percent of the vote. Rangel’s electoral security, and his knowledge that he’d never run for statewide office or serve as Speaker, has been a blessing and curse. It’s how he won the Ways and Means gavel and also why he lost it. In this sense, he’s no different from Dan Rostenkowski, the last Democrat to chair Ways and Means, whose own ethical hubris cost him his seat (and ultimately set him to prison) back in 1994.
As Rep. Jim McDermott, a Seattle liberal, told Politico recently: “Many members remember the way the House was when they came in. Sometimes, they don’t pay any attention to the changes.”
This explains Rangel’s public reaction. Even as national Democrats sweat over whether his ordeal will cost them swing voters in swing districts, Rangel and his House allies seem fixated on House procedure—on portraying him as a victim of an ethics committee that doesn’t care about due process, even though he’s basically admitted that the charges are true. But Rangel and his allies don’t have much reason to care about white suburbia’s reaction. They are playing an inside game, one that requires them to make it hell for Democratic leaders to strip them of the committee seats that are the heart of their power.
We’ve seen this before. In 2006, Nancy Pelosi, then the minority leader, wanted to expel William Jefferson, the New Orleans Democrat in whose freezer the feds found $90,000 in cash from Ways and Means. There was little doubt that Jefferson was guilty of corruption (he was ultimately indicted and convicted on bribery), and Pelosi had good reason to move fast: it was midterm election season, and she wanted to show how little tolerance she had for impropriety. But many C.B.C. members fought her, not because they liked Jefferson (they didn’t), but because they knew that rolling over might make it easier for Pelosi to come after one of their members again in the future. Pelosi eventually got her way (with, believe it or not, a behind-the-scenes assist from Rangel), but it took months.
Democrats like Jefferson and Rangel, of course, make easy targets for Republicans. This, too, shows how little has changed since Rangel first arrived on Capitol Hill. In the late ’60s, the modern Republican Party was essentially created with appeals to the racial and cultural resentments of white southerners and the northern white ethnics who’d been leaving cities in droves. Back then, the right held up black politicians like Rangel as radical and crooked redistributionists who wanted to take from the white working class in order to support their black constituents. He still plays the same role today. It’s not a coincidence that the Fox News crowd is frothing over Rangel’s transgressions while ignoring the fact that Mitch McConnell may be guilty of some of the same misdeeds. In a way, the specifics of the case against Rangel don’t really matter. The headlines alone are enough for the right to play on age-old white resentments about black redistributionists.
Ironically enough, this may be what saves Rangel in next month’s Democratic primary. Sure, plenty of Democrats in the 15th District will vote against him because of the scandal, but how many are now rallying around him, convinced that he’s guilty of no worse than the average white congressman, and that he’s being served up because of his race? It’s worth noting that Jefferson, back in 2006, unexpectedly survived a Democratic primary, probably because of a similar phenomenon. And even in 2008, after he’d been indicted and when it was clear he’d soon be in prison, he still survived a primary and came within 3,000 votes of winning in the general election.
There are nearly four times as many African-Americans in Congress today as when Rangel was first elected. But in many ways, there are still two Congresses. In one, ambitious young House members use their seats as stepping-stones to statewide office and national prominence. Every member of the Senate’s current Democratic leadership— Harry Reid, Dick Durbin, Chuck Schumer and Bob Menendez—first served in the House, as did the No. 2 Republican, Arizona’s Jon Kyl, and a host of other big-name Senate Republicans, like John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Jim DeMint. But no African-American House member has ever been elected to the Senate, or to a governorship. In this Congress, the same ceiling that Rangel faced in 1970 still exists, for the same reasons.
Steve Kornacki is the news editor for Salon.
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