Harassment Politics Grip Washington as Both Parties Fear Damage

(Bloomberg) -- Chatter in Washington around the rising tally of lawmakers toppled by sexual harassment allegations has shifted from “who’s next?” to “how does this end?”

While the U.S. capital has endured sex scandals since Alexander Hamilton’s affair with Maria Reynolds in the 1790s, the country has undergone a sudden shift in attitudes toward allegations of abuse, harassment or other inappropriate behavior and no historical templates exist for how it all might play out.

The cultural change has been moving so fast last week that Democratic Senator Al Franken and Republican Representative Trent Franks announced their resignations on the same day. That followed by a few days a decision by Democratic Representative John Conyers to retire while under pressure from Democratic leaders over harassment allegations. Many Washington insiders are speculating that the purge is far from over.

“We are going to hear more names,” Doug Heye, a consultant who worked in the U.S. House for former Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor, said. “Bad actors need to go. If they don’t go voluntarily they should be shoved.”

Democrats did just that last week with most of the caucus publicly urging Franken to step down, kicked off by Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. Some of Franken’s defenders questioned whether the move was more about gaining the moral high ground over Republicans than conviction about Franken’s alleged wrongdoings.

Setting Precedent

The danger for both parties is setting a precedent in which any level of accusation is considered grounds for dismissal, according historian Craig Shirley.

“This is now out of control and the Democrats don’t know how to stop it,” Shirley said in an interview. “We are literally going through the Salem witch trials again.”

At least two other members of Congress are facing pressure over harassment allegations. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and Representative Ben Ray Lujan, head of the party’s House campaign committee, have called on Representative Ruben Kihuen of Nevada. Republican leaders have largely pointed to the House Ethics Committee as the appropriate venue to handle harassment allegations regarding Representative Blake Farenthold of Texas.

‘Painful Moment’

Second-ranking Senate Democrat Dick Durbin on Sunday rejected any notion of partisan gamesmanship regarding Franken, who has been accused of groping several women. “There was no political calculation here,” Durbin told CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “It was just a painful moment when we made a decision, moved forward on the Democratic side.”

Yet Franken himself fueled the debate as he announced his resignation on the Senate floor.

"I, of all people, am aware that there is some irony in the fact that I am leaving while a man who has bragged on tape about his history of sexual assault sits in the Oval Office and a man who has repeatedly preyed on young girls campaigns for the Senate with the full support of his party,” Franken said, referring to President Donald Trump and Roy Moore, the U.S. Senate candidate from Alabama who faces allegations of inappropriate behavior involving teenage girls. Moore denies the claims.

During his presidential campaign, at least a dozen women came forward with accusations of sexual misconduct against Trump. Three of the women on Monday called for a congressional investigation of their claims. Trump has denied all of the allegations, and he has cited Moore’s denials in endorsing the Alabama Republican.

Alabama Senate

But if Moore wins Tuesday’s special election, party leaders confront a decision about how to deal with the accusations against him. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said last week that Moore almost certainly will face an ethics inquiry.

“I don’t want someone facing these sort of allegations serving in the U.S. Senate. At the same time, you have to respect the will of the voters of Alabama,” former House Republican leadership aide Michael Steel said in an interview. “It is an awful situation that seems to have no good solution.”

Indeed, lawmakers know full well that not every person in Washington accused of improper behavior will quit or be ousted. Clarence Thomas was famously accused of harassment by Anita Hill 26 years ago and the accusations were a major focus of Thomas’ confirmation hearings. Thomas denied them, the Senate confirmed him, and he has served on the Supreme Court since 1991.

Former President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, survived a scandal involving sexual relations with an intern while in office and lying about it, while accusations involving Trump were well known before his election.

However the next few weeks unfold, both parties should be wary of trying to use harassment claims to score political points, several analysts said. Voters are more likely to view the sexual misconduct claims as “just another tawdry story” out of Washington as opposed to associating the allegations with a particular political party, Shirley said.

Heye said the average voter doesn’t think of Franks as a Republican or Conyers as a Democrat, they look at all the sexual harassment controversies as “another example of how Washington is broken.”

©2017 Bloomberg L.P.