The House voted 333 to 79 yesterday to censure Charles Rangel on the basis of 11 violations of the House’s rules. These violations include such misdeeds as failing to declare his rental income from his villa in the Dominican Republic, using official letterhead to solicit donations, and using his rent-controlled Harlem apartment as a campaign office.
In his defense, Rangel has presented two main arguments. The first is a call for equal treatment. The second is assertion that he was sloppy rather than corrupt.
His first appeal does, of course, have a solid theoretical foundation. As a general principle, fairness requires that people be treated consistently. As such, if other politicians in comparable circumstances have not faced censure, then Rangel can contend that he is being treated unfairly. In the past other politicians have violated the rules more severely, yet received only reprimands. A reprimand is, in the House’s punishment hierarchy, less severe than censure (although neither seem to involve anything that resembles actual punishment-though Rangel is supposed to get around to paying his taxes). Not surprisingly, some Democrats have pointed to the actions of certain Republicans, such as Newt Gingrich, which were worse and yet only punished by reprimands. Even some Republicans, such as Peter King, agreed with Rangel’s appeal to fairness and consistency.
I have two replies to this argument.
First, it can be (and has) been argued that Congress was too tolerant of such violations in the past and that the current Congress actually promised to “drain the swamp.” As such, the difference in treatment can be justified on the grounds that the situation had changed. To use an analogy, imagine a teacher who was rather tolerant of plagiarism and cheating in his class. People would be punished, but it would be fairly minor. Now, imagine that the teacher and the students agreed that things needed to change and that higher standards would be set. If a student then cheated and received the new, more severe penalty for cheating, then he would have no grounds for complaint. After all, the new conditions were known and agreed upon.
Also relevant is the fact that Rangel was presented with many opportunities to receive lesser penalties. He, however, refused these offers. Going back to the teacher analogy, suppose a cheating student was offered the opportunity to resolve the situation with a lesser penalty but refused and decided to act in a way that would lead to the imposition of a worse penalty. In that case, the student’s assertion that he is being punished unfairly would seem to have little weight. As such, Rangel’s appeal for fairness seems unreasonable. After all, he could have resolved matters and received a lesser penalty but elected not to do so.
Second, there is also the matter of whether the punishment is unfair relative to the misdeeds (as opposed to relative to how others were punished). Given the number and severity of the violations, I would say that the penalty is unfair. However, it is unfair in that it seems to be far too lenient. While censure is considered the second most severe punishment (the worst is expulsion), it does not seem to involve any significant actual punishment. Failing to pay taxes and so on are rather serious offenses and normal people would tend to be punished for such misdeeds. As such, Rangel is getting off rather easy.
His second argument also has a solid theoretical basis. There is an ethical distinction between intentional misdeeds and misdeeds that are the result of negligence or sloppiness. In general, misdeeds that are the result of sloppiness are generally considered less bad than those done with intent. For example, if a plane crashes due to poor maintenance, that is bad. However, if a plane is brought down by a terrorist bomb, then that is generally seen as morally worse.
My first response to this argument is that his appeal to sloppiness is a rather weak reply. Even if Rangel did not pay his taxes and so on because he was just sloppy rather than from an intent to commit such misdeeds, then this would merely mitigate the extent and nature of his ethical failings. This would, of course, be only a mitigation. Sloppiness does not serve as complete excuse. After all, a person in his position can be reasonably expected to not be sloppy about such matters-just as airplane mechanics are reasonably expected not to be sloppy in their repairs.
My second response is to question his claim of sloppiness. Rangel was actually responsible for tax policy while he was not paying his taxes. As such, he cannot claim that he was sloppy out of ignorance of the tax laws. Since he helped create them, he should know them. To use an analogy, this would be like me claiming that I committed fallacies for years because I was being sloppy. However, since I am supposed to be an expert on critical thinking and fallacies, I cannot use this defense. Unless, of course, I want to “defend” myself by claiming that I am incompetent in my profession.
It is also well worth considering that these matters were brought to his attention quite some time ago. If he had been sloppy in the past, he has had plenty of time to deal with that situation. If he is unable to handle his own affairs, he could have hired someone to manage things for him to ensure that he was not breaking the tax laws and other rules. After all, he does have a staff and plenty of money and he should know better. As such, the sloppiness defense has little weight.
This incident shows that Congress needs to revise its rules so that its members are truly accountable for their misdeeds. Of course, given that Congress makes its own rules, this seems unlikely. No on wants to make the rules too strong-after all, they might find themselves on the receiving end.