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Chairman of the Money

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“Oh, Mr. Draft,” he said. “That’s the stupidest fucking thing that ever came out of that man’s mouth.” The man said being in the military was the worst experience of his life and anyone who advocated “sticking a gun in a young man’s hand” was “sick in the head.” He’d tell Rangel exactly that, too, straight to his face.

When the congressman arrived, the man engaged him in animated conversation. Later, standing behind a table piled high with bags of Arnold herb stuffing, Rangel said there was a man outside who’d signed up for a turkey but his application was unfortunately lost. The man had a sick mother to boot. The guy in the Marlins cap came in, got his turkey. Clutching cans of cranberry sauce, he turned to say it was “his valuable military service” that earned him his holiday dinner. In the Army, he said, “they teach you speak up for yourself.” Informed of this, Rangel could only smile and shake his head.

Today, in the final throes, so to speak, of the 109th Congress, it is moving day at Rayburn, the House office building. Hallways are lined with desks and chairs. “Losers’ furniture,” says a mover, pushing a “Republican watercooler” on a dolly. Rumpled features pushed forward like the hood ornament of an old DeSoto, Rangel trundles through the electoral detritus without comment. He sees no reason to rub it in.

Not that Rangel didn’t allow himself “a period of gloating.” This largely centered on his plan to “repossess” H208, an office traditionally used by the Ways and Means Committee but loaned out by the Republican majority to Dick Cheney. Eschewing sending an exterminator to give the place a quick spray, Rangel says he decided to “be gentle as I restore the dignity of that office … But still: When you gotta go, you gotta go.”

Rangel says he’s tired of Democrats standing around with goony looks on their faces, “pinching themselves” to make sure the Wicked Witch is really dead. The other day, when his colleagues from the Congressional Black Caucus, the group he helped found, cheered his ascension to chairman, he was heard to say, “Knock it off already.”

“The election’s over. We won,” he says. “Let’s do business.”

In 1975, when Rangel switched from the Judiciary Committee to Ways and Means, Charles Diggs, a thirteen-term black congressman from Detroit, said he was nuts. “He said no one ever leaves Ways and Means, that I’d be a freshman for 30 years.” After twenty years, however, through some unexpected attrition—including longtime chairman Wilbur Mills’s being caught in the midst of an affair with stripper Fanne Foxe—Rangel found himself the committee’s third-ranking Democrat.

“Only Sam Gibbons and Jake Pickle were ahead of me,” Rangel recounts. He didn’t become the ranking Democrat until 1996, after Newt Gingrich’s Contract With America. It has been a decade of fronting an increasingly marginalized minority.

The past six years, sitting beside Republican chairman Bill Thomas, have been particularly vexing. Hearing that Thomas had once been named the House’s “meanest” and “second brainiest” man in a poll of congressional aides, Rangel says, “Right on both … All those years, he never once asked me for a vote. He did everything he could to stifle debate and the democratic process in general.” Plus, Rangel says, “the man has no personality. None.”

The animosity came to a head most infamously in July 2003, when, as Rangel puts it, “Thomas called the cops on me.”

As Rangel tells it: “Thomas came in with a revision of this giant pension bill. A big thick thing. He says we’re going to vote on it. I said we haven’t even read it, how can we vote? He said too bad … I told my guys, that’s it. We went into the library, said we weren’t coming out until we were done reading. Thomas went bananas. He said if we didn’t get out of the library he’d call the Capitol Police, which he did. The sergeant at arms knocked on the door and said, ‘I’m sorry, but it seems as if the chairman has called the police.’ We looked at him like you must be kidding.”

Days later, citing his “poor judgment,” Thomas tearfully apologized on the House floor. “I felt bad for him,” Rangel says. “I didn’t think he was going to cry.”

It was a lot of heavy water under the bridge, Rangel says as he passes through the Capitol Hill tunnels to 1100 Longworth, the Ways and Means hearing room. It’s a trek Rangel has made thousands of times over the years. But this one is different. This is the last hearing of the 109th Congress, the final time Rangel would sit in the smaller leather chair directly to the left of Thomas’s big one.


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