It didn't have to end like this.
The House vote Thursday that overwhelmingly censured Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) was preordained. Once Blake Chisam, the chief counsel for the House ethics committee, last month recommended censure for Rangel as penalty for having "brought discredit" upon Congress for violating 11 House rules, and once the committee voted 9-1 to go along with Chisam's recommendation, the full House vote — which came Thursday evening on a 333-79 tally — was not a surprise.
But it didn't have to end this way.
This is not to diminish Rangel's wrongdoings. He used his congressional letterhead and role as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee — which he has since been forced to relinquish — to solicit funds for a center in his name at New York's City College. He used a residential rent-stabilized apartment in Harlem as a campaign office. He failed to report more than $600,000 in rental income, or pay taxes on that income, from a villa he owns in the Dominican Republic.
"He violated the standards of conduct ... He violated the public trust," said ethics committee chair Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) in reading the charges on the House floor as the final debate began Thursday afternoon. These are serious offenses.
He was never in danger of being expelled from Congress. That action has happened only twice since the Civil War.
But why a censure and not a reprimand?
A reprimand is a lesser form of punishment. Other than the stain upon a lawmaker's record, a reprimand comes in the form of a letter to the offending congressman.
A censure is much more severe. The member is forced to stand in the "well," the area of the House floor right below where the speaker resides, and listen to the charges as read by the speaker to the entire House. It is a humiliating moment, once which has not happened since 1983.
The investigation into Rangel's financial affairs has been going on for two years. Republicans, trying to throw Speaker Nancy Pelosi's "drain the swamp" pledge back at the Democrats, tried to push for a censure vote as far back as the summer of 2008; the House tabled that effort.
But it has been clear for some time that Rangel was in trouble. Everyone seemed to know it ... except, perhaps, Rangel. In Thursday's floor speech, the 80-year-old congressman acknowledged he made mistakes and brought dishonor on the House. But, he said, this was more about errors than about corruption. And thus he should be reprimanded, not censured.
And for much of the afternoon, those members who came to the floor to defend Rangel — mostly all Democrats, though it also included New York Republican Peter King — did so not to argue his innocence but to say that a reprimand was the right punishment.
(A substitute amendment, offered first by Rangel defender G.K. Butterfield of North Carolina, called for a reprimand instead of censure. It failed, 146-267. Most telling was the fact that 105 Democrats voted against the amendment.)
Had Rangel admitted his wrongdoings months ago, when it seemed like every Democrat was urging him to do so, rather than deny deny deny, it may not have come to this. The feeling in Washington for the longest time was that all he needed to do was show some remorse, some contrition, some admission of guilt, and the punishment would have been, at most, a reprimand.
But as Rangel held his ground, his colleagues, including most of the Democrats, were losing their patience. It wasn't until the ethics committee voted on censure last month that Rangel finally apologized. By then, it was too late.
For much of his 40 years in the House, Rangel has been a larger-than-life figure, always colorful, always a chatterbox, always charismatic, always fun to be around. As chairman of Ways & Means, he was one of the most powerful members. And he was a prodigious fundraiser.
But that was then. Today, he is a defeated man.
Charles Rangel was a 40-year-old state assemblyman when he took on Adam Clayton Powell in the 1970 Democratic primary. Powell was legendary but ethically challenged, and Rangel won the nationally watched contest. He hasn't had a tough challenge since. Powell's son challenged him in the 1994 primary and again just this year, but failed to come close. In his overwhelmingly Democratic district, Rangel won a 21st term last month with 80 percent of the vote.