Learning to Love Charlie Rangel
From the Magazine: Friday, November 17, 2006
Afraid of or dismayed at the new chairman of the Ways and Means Committee? Rangel has hugged Fidel and compared George Bush with notorious racist Bull Connor, but he may have hidden virtues when it comes to free trade.
This past July, at an event at the Ronald Reagan Building on Pennsylvania Avenue that amounts to a kind of prom for trade policy wonks, the Washington International Trade Association (WITA) presented its annual Lifetime Achievement Award to outgoing Republican congressman Jim Kolbe of Arizona. That was no surprise. Kolbe is a zealous free trader who led the fight for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA),
the trade pact with Canada and Mexico, in 1993; and the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), for Central American countries and the Dominican Republic, in 2005.
But WITA also honored Kolbe’s Democratic colleague Charles Rangel, the rhetorical maestro from Harlem, with its Distinguished Service Award. That tribute “raised a few eyebrows,” says one Republican who attended the dinner. Yet according to this Republican—a former senior U.S. trade official with decades of experience—Rangel deserved the recognition. “I consider him to be a pretty pragmatic, practical guy.”
That seems to be the private—and perhaps surprising—consensus among many Republicans who have dealt with Rangel on the Ways and Means Committee, the prominent House panel he will chair starting in January. Disregard his bombast and occasional flourishes of partisan hyperbole, they insist. When the chips are down, Rangel can be a dealmaker. “I don’t think you could find a better chairman than Charlie” among Democrats, says one GOP source close to the committee. “I believe he will be eminently fair,” says the former Republican trade official, who knows Rangel quite well. “He’s not all that conservative, but he’s someone you can work with.”
Those in business and politics who believe in the benefits of tearing down trade barriers have little choice. For at least the next two years, they are going to have to learn to love Charlie Rangel. His committee—the most powerful in Congress next to the appropriations panels—has jurisdiction over not just trade but also taxes, Social Security, and health care. And since all revenue bills must originate in the House, it’s safe to say that Rangel, along with the Speaker, will be the most important congressional influence on the U.S. economy.
According to Rangel, of the committee’s Big Four—taxes, Social Security, health care, and trade—the last presents the fewest obstacles to bipartisan compromise.
The last Democratic chairman of Ways and Means was Dan Rostenkowski of Illinois, who served for 14 years, helped President Reagan pass his tax cuts in the 1980s, and presided over the approval of important trade deals. Rostenkowski had a knack for working well with Republicans. We will soon find out whether Rangel sees himself in the “Rosty” mode.
Bipartisan comity, however, has all but vanished from the Ways and Means Committee over the past few years—a development blamed on the retiring Republican chairman, Bill Thomas of California, a brilliant man with a penchant for secrecy and prickliness. “Thomas has sort of run this as a one-man show,” says a GOP source. “We get bamboozled on the Republican side just as often as the Democrats do.”
With Thomas leaving, GOP committee members may find it easier to work across the aisle. “It’s going to be more civil,” says Rangel. Of course, he cannot speak for his fellow Democrats. Senior members of his committee—including Pete Stark of California and Jim McDermott of Washington—lean heavily to the left and often drive Republicans batty.
Having won back the House, Democrats can now set the agenda. But with a Republican president, they could run into two years of legislative gridlock. It is hard to imagine any real compromises on Social Security or health care, given the radioactive passions they arouse. Tax reform looks to be a dead letter. Republicans will probably press to make Bush’s tax cuts (most of which expire in 2010) permanent, and Democrats will probably balk. Democrats are highly unlikely to pass any new tax hikes in such a closely divided Congress and with Bush still in the White House. While there is an outside chance for a global deal that would at least make an estate tax reduction permanent, the betting is that taxes will move to the back burner until after the 2008 presidential election.
What about trade? According to Rangel, of the committee’s Big Four—taxes, Social Security, health care, and trade—the last presents the fewest obstacles to bipartisan compromise. The chief debate in 2007 will concern renewal of Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), also known as “fast-track authority.” TPA allows the White House to negotiate trade deals that are shielded from amendment by Congress, which merely gets to vote up or down on each agreement. No serious trade pacts can be negotiated without TPA. It is due to expire in July.
The World Trade Organization’s Doha Round of negotiations, focusing on developing countries, may be stalled, but U.S. lawmakers will still have a busy slate.
Whether in the lame-duck session or early next year, Congress may also decide on bilateral trade deals with Peru, Colombia, Panama, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, South Korea, and other developing economies. The World Trade Organization’s Doha Round of negotiations, focusing on developing countries, may be stalled, but U.S. lawmakers will still have a busy slate. This leaves two big questions: What does Charles Rangel think about free trade, and how will he govern as Ways and Means chairman?
New York’s 15th District blankets the northernmost tip of Manhattan, covering all of Harlem, Columbia University, and many Puerto Rican and Dominican neighborhoods, plus bits of the Upper West Side. These were Adam Clayton Powell’s old stomping grounds. If he did nothing else in politics, Charles Rangel would be remembered as the man who successfully challenged Powell in a 1970 Democratic primary. Republicans barely exist in the district, and Rangel went on to win the general election and enter Congress in 1971. Since then, he has customarily been returned to office with more than 90 percent of the vote.
A Korean War veteran whose heroism earned him a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart, Rangel is highly visible around Washington as a dapper dresser, a blustery orator, and a reliable liberal Democrat. He is typically charming, with a thick “New Yawk” accent and a likable personality. Tired of being stuck in the minority, and perhaps conscious of his age, the 76-year-old Rangel had vowed to retire if Democrats failed to recover the House in 2006.
The notion of Rangel as a fair-minded pragmatist may be difficult to swallow. He has often been guilty of rhetorical excess. During the 1994 campaign, he implicitly smeared tax-cutting conservatives as racists. “It’s not ‘spic’ and ‘nigger’ anymore,” Rangel told an audience in Manhattan. “They say, ‘Let’s cut taxes.’” A few months later, he claimed the GOP’s Contract with America compared unfavorably with measures in Nazi Germany: “Hitler wasn’t even talking about doing these things.”
More recently, Rangel has been an especially vituperative Bush basher. After Hurricane Katrina, he linked the president to a notorious Birmingham, Alabama, public safety commissioner who fought against African-American civil rights. “George Bush is our Bull Connor,” he told a Congressional Black Caucus town hall meeting. “If you’re black in this country, and you’re poor in this country, it’s not an inconvenience—it’s a death sentence.”
Conservatives also grumble about Rangel’s record on Cuba. It is not simply that he opposes the U.S. embargo; many pro-trade Republicans share that sentiment. Rather, his critique of American policy has at times veered into a defense of the Castro regime. In October 1995, he ostentatiously embraced Fidel during the Cuban dictator’s visit to Harlem. In May 2005, Rangel was one of only 22 House members to vote against a resolution expressing solidarity with Cuba’s peaceful civil-society activists, telling The New York Sun that the measure conveyed a lack of “respect” for the government in Havana.
Rangel seems to relish his role as a fierce opponent of President Bush. Shortly before the 2006 election, he told Bloomberg News that he “cannot think of one” of Bush’s first-term tax cuts that deserves renewal. He told Congress Daily that across-the-board tax increases were “on the table” if Democrats won the House: “No question about it.” Meanwhile, he suggested to The Hill that Democrats might seek to terminate the U.S. mission in Iraq by cutting off all funding, saying, “You’ve got to be able to pay for the war, don’t you?”
On trade, racial politics often pushed him in a free-market direction.
I spoke to Rangel shortly after the Hill interview. He backtracked from his remark about turning off the Iraq spigots and said that it would not be a Ways and Means issue. “We don’t have jurisdiction over that on our committee,” Rangel told me. But he remains a dogged opponent of the war: a co-founder of the “Out of Iraq” Caucus whose ranks now include more than 70 House Democrats. He even voted against a pair of measures—in March 2003 and March 2004—honoring U.S. troops in Iraq, because he thought the resolutions amounted to a tacit endorsement of Bush’s policies.
In January 2003, more than two months before the bombs started falling on Baghdad, Rangel introduced legislation to reinstate the military draft, hoping it would persuade Americans to oppose war. “Those who love this country have a patriotic obligation to defend this country,” he told reporters. “For those who say the poor fight better, I say give the rich a chance.”
The politics of race has permeated his 36-year tenure on Capitol Hill. On trade, however, racial politics often pushed him in a free-market direction. In recent years, Rangel lobbied to slash tariffs and other import duties on goods from sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean basin, working with such allies as former Republican House Leader Tom DeLay. He also pushed for the Dominican Republic to be included in CAFTA but then voted against the final agreement (which passed the House by a single vote) in July 2005. The turnabout demonstrated, first, that Rangel tends to be a loyal Democrat when trade spats become partisan, and, second, that he will frequently agitate to shape trade arrangements around labor and environmental laws—which, he said, were inadequate in the case of CAFTA.
“Charlie Rangel is not a knee-jerk protectionist,” says Daniel Griswold, a trade expert at the Cato Institute. “But he’s not a reliable vote for free trade, either.” Griswold’s analysis of voting patterns in the 108th Congress placed Rangel in the “internationalist” category, which means he “generally” votes for trade liberalization but also supports taxpayer subsidies.
On major trade-policy votes since 1993, Rangel has voted against trade barriers 68 percent of the time—“which is pretty good,” in Griswold’s view. In the 108th Congress, which concluded at the end of 2004, that number was 88 percent. Indeed, Rangel backed a free trade agreement (FTA) with Singapore, an FTA with Chile, and an FTA with Morocco, while also voting to relax computer export controls. Last December, he endorsed an FTA with Bahrain.
“I believe, at his core, Charlie Rangel is a free trader,” says a senior Republican Ways and Means member. But Rangel recently voted against an FTA with tiny Oman, citing a controversy over the Middle Eastern country’s labor standards. And like most House Democrats, he opposed granting TPA to Bush in 2002. He also voted against NAFTA in 1993 and against approving the World Trade Organization’s Uruguay Round agreements in 1994.
The Uruguay Round “was the most important trade agreement of the past two decades,” says Claude Barfield, a resident scholar specializing in trade at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). “It had a scope and reach far beyond any other round, and it was extremely beneficial to America.” It’s hard to call a legislator pro-trade if he opposed Uruguay. Still, Daniella Markheim, a trade policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, notes that Rangel “is more pragmatic” on trade than most other House Democrats.
TPA will be the most decisive struggle in 2007. “Without that,” says the senior GOP Ways and Means member, “everything pretty much comes to a halt.” It’s unclear how many of the separate FTAs will be taken up during the lame-duck session and how many will wait until the new year. For example, Congress must finalize permanent normal trade relations with Vietnam, a country of more than 80 million. (Rangel voted in favor of continued normal trade relations with Vietnam in 2002.) And the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act—which covers Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru—expires in December. (Rangel has sponsored legislation to extend the trade pact with Bolivia.)
But in terms of money and magnitude, the FTA with South Korea trumps all others. Former U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman called it “the most commercially significant free trade negotiation we have embarked on in 15 years.” (According to the USTR’s office, “Two-way goods trade between the U.S. and Korea was valued at about $72 billion in 2005.”) Rangel is co-chairman of the House Korea Caucus, which may tilt him in favor of this particular agreement.
For Democratic free traders, the numbers are discouraging. In 1993, fewer than 40 percent of House Democrats voted for NAFTA, despite the cajoling of President Clinton. In 2005, fewer than 10 percent of House Democrats voted for CAFTA, an agreement with a group of small, poor countries on the doorstep of the United States. The party’s trade stance through 2008 may depend on the tone and priorities set by the new House Speaker (almost certainly Nancy Pelosi) and other Democratic power brokers.
In other words, even if he is genuinely committed to hashing out bipartisan compromises on trade, Rangel may be hindered by the House Democratic leadership and by recalcitrant members of his committee. “Charlie Rangel won’t be running the store by himself,” says a longtime Washington lawyer and onetime House Republican aide. Pelosi and other top Democrats “will hang over that committee like a very long shadow,” thus giving Rangel “a very tough assignment.”
At an AEI conference in October, Daniel Drezner of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University predicted that, under Democratic leadership, Congress would never grant TPA to President Bush—because, quite simply, the Democrats don’t want to give him an ounce of extra power. Griswold puts it bluntly: Democratic capture of the House “pretty much kills Bush’s trade agenda.”
But Barfield disagrees. He can see TPA passing under Rangel’s leadership because many Democrats—let’s call them the Robert Rubin wing of the party—“do not want to be tagged as the people who brought down the Doha Round,” which, after all, is supposed to help poor countries. “Do we want to be called isolationists?” those Democrats will ask themselves, says Barfield. The Democrats can also attach conditions to TPA—extend it, for example, strictly for Doha but not for FTAs they don’t like.
Despite his own uneven record, Charles Rangel remains the Democrat best positioned to salvage a free trade agenda—should he wish to and should his caucus not stamp out such efforts. Also remember that Rangel is unpredictable. He caught nearly everyone by surprise in September when he publicly rebuked Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chávez, who had strutted into Harlem (à la Fidel) and delivered a scathingly anti-Bush and anti-American diatribe. “I still don’t understand why there was so much attention focused on that,” Rangel told me later. “To come into my congressional district and attack the president?” What did people expect Rangel to say?
Perhaps some observers recalled his Harlem embrace of Castro a decade earlier. Fairly or unfairly, Rangel’s swagger has convinced many outside-the-Beltway conservatives that he is a left-wing partisan. Yet I was struck by his relative popularity among Washington Republicans. The GOP evidently feels that, if Democrats must run the House, they could do worse than to have Rangel in charge of Ways and Means.
If Rangel truly is a pragmatist and a conciliator, these next two years will be his chance to prove it. The fate, not only of Bush’s trade policy but of U.S. credibility in the global economy, may rest with the gentleman from Harlem.
Duncan Currie is a Washington reporter for The Weekly Standard.