In July, Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) filed a complaint with the House Ethics Committee requesting an investigation into possible rules violations by a member of Congress: Charlie Rangel. The Washington Post had reported that Rangel may have improperly used congressional letterhead for a letter seeking donations for a college building that bears his name. Rangel filed the complaint to see if he inadvertently” violated House rules.
Around the same time, The New York Times revealed a more serious potential breach: Rangel’s use of four rent-controlled apartments in Harlem’s luxury Lenox Terrace complex. Since most city residents with rentcontrolled apartments have just one, some observers—notably the National Legal and Policy Center, which filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission—speculated that Rangel’s accumulation of four may have constituted an unreported gift. Furthermore, New York City law states that a rent-controlled apartment must be used as a primary residence, but Rangel was using at least one as a campaign office. None of this has attracted the House Ethics Committee’s attention.
Despite all the congressional corruption that has been exposed during the last few years, including several cases that led to federal indictments, Rangel’s request was the first ethics complaint filed against a member of the House of Representatives since 2004. Unlike in the Senate, where anyone can file an ethics complaint against a sittingsenator, a House rule passed in 1997 states that only another member may file a complaint against a sitting representative. That has led to a decade-long “ethics truce,” in which the two major parties have informally agreed to abstain from filing complaints, no matter how egregiously a particular member may have behaved.
“Members are loath to file complaints against one another because they fear retaliation,” says Naomi Seligman Steiner, the deputy director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “Nobody wants to start an ethics war.” The last complaint was filed against then-Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) by former Rep. Chris Bell (D-Texas), who was redistricted out of his job. Steiner, whose organization helped draft Bell’s complaint, notes that “Bell was roundly beaten up for it.”
There’s no word from Capitol Hill on whether Rangel’s complaint will lead to a wave of members filing retaliatory complaints against themselves.