Rep. Charlie Rangel temporarily resigned his chairmanship of the House Ways & Means Committee pending the completion of various ethics probes into his personal finances and other activities. (For a previous Sunlight Foundation exposé on Rangel’s financial disclosures see here.) Aside from the political repercussions that are being discussed there are a variety of other lines of inquiry that Rangel’s troubles have exposed. One of the most important is who will succeed him as chair of the House’s tax-writing panel.
Next in line in seniority is Rep. Pete Stark of California. Stark was recently subjected to an Ethics Committee investigation and, while cleared by the committee of charges that he inappropriately received a tax break on his Maryland home, the congressman does not come across nearly as well according to the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), an independent ethics body that recommends investigations to the Ethics Committee.
When the Office of Congressional Ethics staff came to Stark’s second-floor Cannon office in July 2009, investigators noticed a video camera recording — but Stark had not informed the interviewers that he had the camera running.
As the interview went on, Stark was contradictory in his answers to the investigators from the OCE, which is an outside congressional office and does not have the same power as the House ethics committee.
“Throughout the interview, Rep. Stark was extremely belligerent and frequently insulted the OCE staff members interviewing him,” Kedric Payne, the investigative counsel, wrote in a memorandum deep in the 122-page report. “Approximately 15 minutes into the interview, it also became apparent to the OCE interviewers that Rep. Stark was videotaping the exchange.” It is not standard for members to record interviews with the OCE, but members have the option of having a court reporter present for interviews.
OCE also had issues with the Ethics Committee investigation and issued this statement:
“The OCE conducted a thorough and professional review and accurately reported the facts gathered in the course of its review. The document the Standards Committee is citing, in order to claim that the OCE ‘s review was inadequate, was never provided to the OCE by Representative Stark. In fact, according to the Anne Arundel County Finance Office, such documents are not even mailed to homeowners until the end of November 2009 — almost three months after the OCE review concluded.
“Further, the OCE’s review concerned the following allegation, ‘Representative Stark’s conduct may have violated Maryland law and the Code of Ethics for Government Service if he misrepresented information on the Application for Homestead Credit Eligibility in order to prove eligibility.’ Thus, the OCE review focused on what steps Representative Stark took or did not take to secure the credit not whether he was successful in securing the credit.
“At no time did the OCE subject Representative Stark to unfounded criminal allegations.”
House Democratic leadership may also be weighing the political ramifications of a Stark chairmanship. Peter Stone of National Journal explained back in December 2009:
In June, Stark voted against Pelosi’s “signature” cap-and-trade energy legislation. He has been mostly a loyal lieutenant in support of health reform as chairman of the Ways and Means Health Subcommittee, though Pelosi pre-empted many key decisions on that measure, especially in the endgame leading up to its passage in the House.
In an October profile, the Los Angeles Times noted Stark’s “big mouth” and called him “one of Congress’ most impolitic politicians.” Stark told the reporter, “It’s difficult for me” when he is under attack, and that his responses are rarely planned. “I don’t suffer people who disagree with me that well,” he said.
With Stark’s problems, and amid growing speculation that Rangel may use passage of health reform as a capstone to conclude his 40-year House career, it may be possible for Democrats to move more comfortably to a new Ways and Means chairman. Next in line following Stark are Reps. Sander Levin, D-Mich., who also is 78, plus 73-year-old Jim McDermott, D-Wash., and 69-year-old John Lewis, D-Ga. All fit comfortably in the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. After Lewis in committee seniority is 60-year-old Rep. Richard Neal, D-Mass., who has closer working relationships with many lobbyists and K Street interests.