Congress

The Temptations of the Ways & Means Chair


At first glance, the writers of America's tax laws would seem unlikely candidates for congressional chicanery. Yet the 13-count ethics case unveiled on July 29 against former House Ways & Means Chairman Charles B. Rangel is the latest in a series of scandals to rock the panel.

One of Rangel's predecessors, fellow Democrat Wilbur Mills, designed the modern U.S. Tax Code as chairman from 1958 to 1975. He was brought low by his dalliances with stripper Fanne Foxe. Another Democrat, Dan Rostenkowski, who led Congress's overhaul of the tax system in 1986, was embroiled in a scandal involving the House Post Office. He was indicted for putting friends on the payroll and buying gifts with postal funds and served 15 months in prison. Rangel, 80, relinquished the chair in March after the House ethics panel admonished him for accepting corporate-sponsored trips. A subcommittee of the ethics panel then brought charges against him, including failing to report income, use of rent-stabilized housing in New York for campaign purposes, and soliciting contributions for an institute in his name from companies with business before Congress. Rangel refused to settle the allegations with an apology and faces a congressional trial in the fall.

Such missteps are more than coincidence for the head of a panel that oversees taxes, trade, and about a third of all federal spending, including Social Security and Medicare, the health-care program for the elderly that Mills helped design in 1965. "The chairman is at the nexus of private money, interest groups, and congressional power," says Julian E. Zelizer, a historian at Princeton University. "There are big temptations." Chairmen "grow comfortable in these positions of power, and they tend to slip up a little bit around the edges," adds Ronald M. Peters Jr., a political scientist at the University of Oklahoma.

Despite the seeming hex, the committee helm remains sought after. Representative Sander Levin (D-Mich.), the temporary chairman, wants the gavel permanently come January; Representative Richard Neal (D-Mass.) is fighting him for the honor. Their weapon: campaign contributions. Neal, 61, whose state has insurance, mutual fund, and high-technology interests, has given fellow Democrats about $410,000 this election cycle. Levin, 78, who represents Detroit's industrial suburbs and has strong labor ties, has given almost $570,000. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other House Democratic leaders will pick between the two, unless voters decide to hand over control to the Republicans come November.

The bottom line: Several occupiers of the House Ways & Means chair have had illustrious careers that ended in scandal.

Rowley is a reporter for Bloomberg News.
Donmoyer is a reporter for Bloomberg News.

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