House Democrats had better start taking the ethics allegations against Rep. Charlie Rangel seriously. I know it’s difficult for those steeped in Capitol Hill’s hermetic culture to understand, but a verdict of “mistakes were made” — which a lot of Democrats would like to reach — doesn’t cut it in the real world. Strange as it seems. Seriously.

Republicans, I should note, are being baldly hypocritical in calling for Rangel, who has spent four decades in the House, to step down immediately as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee — a position that makes him one of the most powerful men in Washington. Those same Republicans were happy to keep “Dancing with the Stars” dropout Tom DeLay as majority leader for years while he was under a monsoon’s worth of ethical cloud cover.

But just because Republicans are posturing for political gain doesn’t mean that Democrats can do the same without paying a price. If you win big majorities in both the House and Senate by railing against a “culture of corruption” in Washington, as the Democratic Party did, voters tend to get the wacky notion that you actually mean what you say.

The violations that Rangel is alleged to have committed are, inconveniently for him, easy for anyone to understand. The most serious, perhaps, is the allegation that he failed to pay taxes on about $75,000 in income from renting out a beach house that he owns in the Dominican Republic. For the chairman of the House committee that writes tax legislation not to pay his fair share in taxes would be as bad as, say, for the secretary of the Treasury not to pay his fair share in taxes. Hold it, maybe that’s a bad example.

The most stunning alleged violation is more of a technicality: that on required financial disclosure forms, Rangel failed to list more than $500,000 in assets. The average citizen isn’t likely to have half a million bucks somehow slip his mind, since the average citizen doesn’t have anything near half a million bucks.

And we’re not talking easily overlooked “Antiques Roadshow” assets — a dusty painting in the attic that turns out to be the work of a second-tier Old Master, or a rickety chair in the basement that experts date as 18th century. What Rangel failed to declare were liquid assets — a credit union account worth more than $250,000 and an investment account also worth more than $250,000 — plus some real estate he owns in New Jersey and assorted stock holdings.

These omissions came to light after Rangel filed amended disclosure forms, so he blew the whistle on himself. But he was already under fire for other alleged lapses, including having leased several rent-stabilized New York apartments — one of which he used as a campaign office — at below-market value, even though such apartments are supposed to be used as a tenant’s primary residence. Technically, this could be considered an illegal gift from the landlord to Rangel. This allegation probably fits into the “too convoluted to bother with” category.

And another charge goes into the “too trivial to mention” file — that Rangel used his official stationery to solicit funds for a new educational center to be named after him at City University of New York.

The House Ethics Committee is looking into the allegations and seems to be taking its sweet time. If we were just talking about the misused letterhead and the rent-controlled apartments, we’d be well within “mistakes were made” territory. The failure to disclose the huge credit union and investment accounts is harder to dismiss, but at least there’s no suggestion that the funds were ill-gotten. The tax issue is flat-out problematic. Not paying taxes is against the law.

The real problem, though, is the overall portrait of a wealthy and privileged congressional pasha to whom ordinary rules don’t apply. It’s a picture that obscures Rangel’s long and tireless work in the House on behalf of the needy and dispossessed. It pains me to see his record tarnished, because I like and admire the guy. But he’s the one who did the tarnishing.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi may owe Rangel her job, but she needs to press the Ethics Committee to do its work without fear or favor. And she needs to contemplate the prospect of explaining to voters, come next fall, why the affluent man who sets their taxes didn’t pay his.

Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)

© 2009, Washington Post Writers Group

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