• Politics

Charles Rangel: The Lion of Harlem

8 minute read
Sheelah Kolhatkar

Charles Rangel was pacing outside a congressional meeting room where members of the House of Representatives were haggling over the health-care bill. Inside, a boiler-room atmosphere had developed: no one was allowed to leave for anything other than a bathroom break or a vote until committee members came up with a way to pay for the health-care legislation that was being hammered out in Congress. Maintaining his usual sartorial discipline, Rangel was wearing a pearl gray suit with a checkered tie and gold tiepin; a crest of gray hair was slicked neatly over the top of his head, and a chunky opal ring twinkled on his right hand. But his eyes were beginning to resemble those of a bloodhound exhausted by the hunt. “We have to raise $1.2 trillion,” he said. “It’s like pulling teeth. I haven’t even talked to my wife in two days.”

Ways and Means is one of Congress’s most powerful clubs, the guardian of the federal tax code and the body responsible for finding a way to pay for anything Congress wants to do. The Obama Administration had counted on Rangel’s committee to be a key linchpin in its push for health-care reform–which would also rank as Rangel’s crowning legislative achievement. It hasn’t worked out that way, at least not yet. Deeply split along party lines, the Ways and Means panel has become a target for critics who say Obama has allowed congressional Democrats to turn health-care reform into a partisan enterprise that will raise taxes on the rich without controlling costs or solving many of the health-care system’s biggest problems. And it is the committee’s chairman, the 20-term Congressman from Harlem, who is taking the most heat.

The first thing one notices about Rangel is his appearance, with every hair carefully in place with the aid of a purple comb he keeps in his pocket. The second is the way he speaks: his voice is deep and raspy, and he expresses himself with a bluntness that suggests he’s been around too long to care what people think. At 79, Rangel is one of Capitol Hill’s oldest lions, with an impressive backstory that lends him stature with his colleagues. “As a leader in Congress, he’s a respected voice,” says House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Rangel has been in the House of Representatives since 1971 and on the committee since 1974. When he rose to chairman in 2007, Rangel became the first African American ever to hold the position. “To be the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee is probably as close to being a major figure in a European monarchy as we have to offer,” says Ross Baker, a political-science professor at Rutgers University. “The chairman is subject to the largest numbers of entreaties and colossal deference, because everybody has got a tax angle. It means you are paid court by every lobbyist in Washington.”

It also means you have to watch your step. The job has been too much for men like Arkansas’s Wilbur Mills and Illinois’s Dan Rostenkowski, who in decades past let ethical errors derail their chairmanships. Lately, Rangel is seen to have stumbled as well. He has become the focus of several ethics scandals over matters ranging from the relatively petty to the potentially serious. Last summer, it was revealed that Rangel was occupying four apartments at below-market rents in a Harlem building owned by a prominent real estate developer. (He has since given up one apartment that he used as an office.) In September, he admitted he had neglected to pay some taxes by failing to report $75,000 in rental income earned from a beachfront villa he owns in the Dominican Republic. (“That was a big boo-boo,” he acknowledged.) His fundraising for the Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service at the City College of New York has been controversial, with accusations that Rangel improperly used congressional stationery to solicit donations and sought contributions from companies that had business before the Ways and Means Committee. (“Me writing a letter on behalf of a goddam college? Give me a break,” he says dismissively.) In June, the House ethics committee launched yet another probe, this time into trips taken by Rangel and other lawmakers to the Caribbean. (“That’s nothing,” he says.)

Rangel insists the headlines aren’t a distraction. But there is no question that the episodes have undercut his clout. The ethics committee was due to release its findings back in January, and Rangel is eager for the already overdue conclusion that he hopes will clear his name. “The worst that can happen is someone will say, ‘Those bastards after you again, Rangel? When is it ever going to stop?'” he says. “I don’t have a complaint now, except that it’s taking too goddam long to review this thing and report back.”

Rangel’s ethics problems lingered as House leaders stepped up their drive to get some kind of health-care bill passed. After days of intense, closed-door talks, Rangel and his committee produced a bill that proposed paying for about half of the new health-care program’s estimated $1 trillion in costs by taxing individuals earning more than $280,000 and couples earning more than $350,000 annually. That proposal sparked an outcry. Pelosi then stepped back from the idea, arguing instead that only individuals earning more than $500,000 and couples earning more than $1 million be subject to the tax.

Rangel’s defenders say the chairman was under pressure from House leaders to produce a measure to keep up the appearance of momentum, even if it had no political future. Rangel, they say, knows that his measure could eventually be watered down or just plain ignored by the White House. So Rangel played his part, aware that his maneuvering room is limited. “Our charge was to come up with a plan that insured almost 98% of the American people and to pay for it,” says committee member Richard Neal. “We accomplished that.” Now health-care reform hangs in the balance, and if it goes down, so too may Rangel’s legacy. As Rangel put it during a car ride to La Guardia Airport from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s 100th-anniversary convention in Manhattan, “I want to be the guy who got this health bill out. That’s what I want to be known for, not that they’re out there attacking me.”

If Rangel is now very much a product of the system, he started out as the ultimate Washington outsider. He grew up in Harlem and, after serving in Korea, put himself through college with assistance from the GI Bill. He went on to law school and was elected to Congress after defeating Adam Clayton Powell Jr. in the 1970 Democratic primary. He emerged by the mid-1980s as a shrewd and happy warrior, fearless in his defense of programs that aided the African-American and Hispanic voters who make up most of his New York City district. Though they vote Democratic by a ratio of at least 9 to 1, their man in Washington tangled nearly as often with the Clinton White House about various budget items as he had with its Republican predecessors.

When asked what he is likely to be remembered for, Rangel chortled, “Well, as Rhett Butler once said in Gone With the Wind, if I’m gone, quite frankly, I don’t give a damn.” He then went on to cite his push to remove tax benefits for U.S. corporations doing business in South Africa during apartheid as one of his most significant accomplishments. After the apartheid bill passed, Rangel had the opportunity to meet with Nelson Mandela to discuss it. “In South Africa [the Rangel amendment] was known as the ‘bloody Rangel amendment,'” Rangel says Mandela told him. “I could almost have cried.”

Despite the problems he is having now, Rangel allies say he has other projects on his to-do list. Rangel plans to lay siege to the alternative minimum tax, which has a disproportionate impact on high-wage states such as New York and New Jersey. He is also eyeing a once-in-a-generation overhaul of the entire tax code, much like the one Congress enacted in 1986.

Those fights are months away. For now, the battle over health care seeps into every corner of Rangel’s life. At the NAACP centennial celebration in July, he strutted around the New York Hilton, grabbing hands and slapping backs like a pasha, but the drama in Washington was never far away. He seemed to stop every few feet to pose for a photograph, his teeth gleaming like piano keys. He climbed onto the stage and delivered a speech with no notes, talking about the growth of the Congressional Black Caucus, which he helped found. Then, during the hurried walk to the car that was waiting to take him to the airport, Rangel’s cell phone rang. It was Max Baucus, his Senate counterpart, calling to talk health care.

Rangel froze in the middle of the sidewalk. “It’s a long way from here to signature,” he said into the phone, looking serious. “Listen, Max, we can’t afford that.” He paused. A crowd gathered to stare, and people started snapping pictures. “You’ll get nothing but support from me,” Rangel continued. “I know what you’re up against.”

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