Behaving Badly in Congress: A History of Crime and Punishment

When Rep. Charlie Rangel took to the House floor on August 10, proclaiming his innocence amid a growing ethics probe, he told his colleagues, “If I was you, I may want me to go away too. I am not going away!”

When Congress formally censures Rangel, he won’t be able to.

House rules say “a ‘censure’ is a formal vote by the majority of Members present and voting on a resolution disapproving a Member’s conduct, with generally the additional requirement that the Member stand at the ‘well’ of the House chamber to receive a verbal rebuke and reading of the censure resolution by the Speaker of the House.”

Incorporating a public element to one’s punishment is not entirely new (just ask Marie Antoinette or The Scarlet Letter's Hester Prynne). But its purpose here is not entirely retributive. According to Congressional records, the other aim is to restore the public’s confidence after it has been weakened (or at least called into question) by a member’s behavior. Punishable offenses range from payroll fraud (Rep. Charles Diggs in 1979) to fighting in the Senate chambers (Senators Benjamin Tilman and John McLaurin in 1902).

Here’s a breakdown of Congressional violations since the creation of the House Ethics Committee 43 years ago, and how Rangel’s violations compare:

43 - years the House Ethics Committee has been in existence.

16 - number of times the committee recommended sanctions against a House member.

4  -  number of times the Ethics Committee recommended expulsion.

3  -  number of times the Ethics Committee recommended censure.

9  -  number of times the Ethics Committee recommended reprimand.

-  number of times the House declined to follow the Ethics Committee recommendations.

2  -  number of times the Ethics Committee recommends reprimand, but the House voted to censure [upgrade].

1  -  number of times the Ethics Committee recommended censure, but the House voted to reprimand [downgrade].

5  -  number of times the Ethics Committee issued a letter of reproval, it’s mildest punishment.

How Rangel compares:

Financial disclosure requirements: Rangel violated this rule by not accurately reporting income he earned on rental property he owns in the Dominican Republic. Similarly, Rep. George Hanson failed to report $334,000 in loans and profits from 1978 to 1981. Hanson was also found guilty of 4 counts of making false statements to investigators. The Ethics Committee recommended Hanson be reprimanded.

Misuse of official resources: Rangel was found to have used staff, Congressional letterhead and his official office in order to raise money for a school to be named after him. The solicitations went to people with business before his committee and the Congress.

A similar charge was leveled against Rep. Austin Murphy, who diverted resources from his district office to his former law firm. The Ethics Committee had also found “ghost voting” taking place and that Murphy had a staffer who did work “not commensurate with his pay.” The committee recommended Murphy be reprimanded.

Rep. James Traficant was accused of misusing Congressional staff to work on his boat and his farm. The Ethics Committee recommended Traficant be expelled after he was found guilty of bribery in federal court,

Violating tax laws: Rangel did not report to the IRS income he earned on his Dominican villa for 17 years. Then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich also committed tax-related violations . He failed to follow, or even seek, legal advice. Gingrich also “should have known information transmitted to the committee was inaccurate, incomplete and unreliable,” according to the current Ethics Committee chief counsel. The committee recommended Gingrich be reprimanded.

Traficant was also convicted of failing to report or pay income taxes. He served seven years in prison after being expelled from Congress.