John Lewis for Ways and Means Chair

Putting John Lewis in charge of Ways and Means until the ethics investigation of Charlie Rangel concludes can solve many problems at once.

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.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.

One thought on “John Lewis for Ways and Means Chair”

  1. Why do you think Fortney Stark is smart? I haven't seen any signs of it, and I've been watching him in Congress for years.

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