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Charles Rangel: master of politics, not the tax code

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(Read caption) Rep. Charles Rangel (D) of New York stepped down as chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee Wednesday after an ethics panel found he violated rules for gifts. He's a master politician who didn't realize the rules of conduct had changed.

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Sad to see Representative Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) step down today as chairman of the House Ways & Means Committee. The move, in the wake of a series of alleged personal financial scandals, was announced as temporary, but there is little question that Rangel has given up the chair for good.

Rangel had to do this: He could not continue to lead the House tax-writing committee in the face of charges that he had failed to fully pay his own taxes and properly report in his House disclosure forms a significant amount of investment income.

In many ways, Rangel has reminded me of one of his predecessors, Dan Rostenkowski. Both were highly skilled legislative mechanics who delighted in getting bills passed. And, sadly, neither quite understood that the rules had changed, and that what was “regular order” in the old days was no longer acceptable.

Unlike, say, former Ways & Means chairman Bill Thomas, Rangel (like Rosty) never was, nor ever pretended to be, an expert on the Internal Revenue Code. But Rangel could count votes, work across the aisle as well as anyone in today’s highly-partisan atmosphere, and build relationships with Main Street and Wall Street. It was remarkable to me that when Rangel first became committee chairman, some business groups worried that he’d be hostile to their interests. There may have been more than a tinge of racism in that view, but in truth Rangel was always open to their legitimate concerns. Indeed, just a couple of years ago, he proposed a major reform that would have slashed the corporate tax rate.

Mostly, however, Rangel loved being in Congress. Some years ago, I had the opportunity to spend most of a day with him, following him from meeting to meeting on Capitol Hill and getting a sense of how he operated. I saw a man who reveled in the camaraderie of Congress. He could not walk around a corner without bumping into a lawmaker who would greet him with “Hey, Charlie.” Rangel’s gravelly-voiced reply was either “howareya” or, just as often, a slap on the back, a handshake, and one more request for support for whatever amendment he had on the floor that day.

In the days when Thomas was chairman and Rangel was the committee’s senior Democrat, the New Yorker seemed genuinely hurt and baffled that Thomas never made an effort to develop a relationship with him. Rangel liked to say that in Congress you can disagree without being disagreeable. And he seemed to mean it.

But, sadly, that world too has changed.

In recent years, the Ways & Means panel has lost much of its influence as first Republican leaders and, now, Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi have consolidated more legislative power in their own offices. But the committee still matters. It remains to be seen who will replace Rangel, although three leading candidates are representatives Pete Stark (D-CA), Sandy Levin (D-MI), and Richard Neal (D-MA). While Neal has less seniority than Stark and Levin, he’d probably be the most effective chairman.

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