Although Charlie Rangel’s ethical lapses now make it clear that he has to go, Speaker Pelosi has not removed him yet for two clear reasons:
1) The Congressional Black Caucus would have a fit; and
2) The bench behind Rangel is really weak.
Let’s look at the second problem first. Behind Rangel are: 1) Pete Stark, who is smart and committed but a notorious loose cannon who seems unable to work with other legislators; 2) Jim McDermott, who is like Stark except less intelligent and more of a loose cannon; and 3) Sandy Levin, who is a good team player, but putting any fiercely protectionist Michigan Democrat in charge of trade policy is going too far (Levin heads Ways and Means’ trade subcommittee, but that can always be trumped by a chair if necessary).
As for the first, it doesn’t help that Pelosi stripped “Dollar Bill” Jefferson of his committee posts last year, and that John Conyers is facing ethical problems of his own. The merits don’t matter here; maybe they should, but the Speaker needs to keep her Caucus happy.
What to do?
Well, who is next on Ways and Means’ seniority list? John L. Lewis.
Yes, that John L. Lewis: civil rights hero, loyal member of the Democratic team, chair of Ways and Means oversight subcommittee. It’s just logical to tap him.
As far as I can tell, there are two downsides with Lewis, neither of them disqualifying.
First, a couple of months ago, the Wall Street Journal ran a story that Lewis had fought against the appointment of a US Attorney for Georgia who had prosecuted former Atlanta mayor Bill Campbell, a Lewis ally. But upon closer inspection (and even a cursory examination of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution story about it), it seems as if there was nothing there, and that maybe Lewis actually advocated for the candidate’s appointment. In any event, there is an enormous difference between objecting to someone’s appointment because they prosecuted an ally, and interfering with an ongoing investigation.
Second, it is fair to say that while Lewis has had a distinguished life, he is anything but a distinguished legislator. If there is anywhere that a member of Congress will tout his or her legislative accomplishments, it is the member’s website. Lewis’ has nothing: he seems to have been in Congress for 23 years without a signature piece of legislation to his name. The oversight subcommittee has also been extremely quiet. That record not ideal, but it’s not terrible, either: he will get along and go along. Sam Rayburn and John McCormack didn’t have any bills named after them, either.
So unless there is something going on that has not reached the public, it makes sense for Rangel to step down until the Ethics Committee investigation concludes, and have Lewis step in.