Congressional Democrats have a serious dilemma on their hands. And he goes by the name of Charlie Rangel (D-NY). Since July, the nineteen-term congressman and chairman of the powerful ways and means committee has been fighting for his political life over a series of alleged ethical lapses, ranging from his use of congressional stationary to solicit donations for the Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service at the City College of New York to his failure to report rental income from his villa in the Dominican Republic. And things just got worse for Rangel. Today, the New York Times reports that he “played a pivotal role” in preserving a tax loophole benefiting an oil drilling company, Nabors Industries, whose chief executive pledged $1 million to the center that was named in Rangel’s honor. Rangel and Nabors’ CEO Eugene Isenberg have denied that there was any quid pro quo here, but the Times story does not paint a pretty picture. Among other things, it notes, Rangel was at one point firmly against the tax shelter in question before suddenly coming out in favor of leaving the loophole in place—a move that saves “Nabors an estimated tens of millions of dollars annually.” And then there’s this: “while the issue was before his committee, Mr. Rangel met with Mr. Isenberg and a lobbyist for Nabors and discussed it, on the same morning that the congressman and Mr. Isenberg met to talk about the chief executive’s potential support for the Rangel center.”
If you’re House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), this news has got to give you pause. Despite the fact that Rangel is already under investigation by the (notoriously timid) House Ethics Committee for his Rangel Center fundraising, among other matters, he recently managed to maintain his grasp on the chairmanship of the ways and means committee. But keeping Rangel in charge of a committee that crafts federal tax policy while he faces serious allegations that he abused his office—and indeed, accusations of his own tax improprieties—doesn’t seem like a strategy that’s going to bode well for the Democrats, who assumed control of Congress, in part, by promising to crack down on congressional corruption. According to Politico, Rangel’s clout has been muted somewhat in recent months, and Pelosi “has shown ample willingness to intervene directly in his committee’s affairs.” That said, Rangel’s ability to weather this current storm should not be underestimated. After all, he didn’t maneuver himself into one of the most powerful perches in Congress by being anything less than a shrewd political operator.