Congress

Echoes of 1990s Scandal Roll Across Capitol Hill

Remember when congressmen used taxpayers' money to cover bounced checks? Now it's sexual harassment settlements.

Can you hear them?

Photographer: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The Senate Office of Compliance rebuffed a request this month by Democratic Senator Tim Kaine to release data on how much taxpayer money has been paid to settle sexual harassment suits against lawmakers. Kaine’s request was probably prompted by the recent revelation that Republican Representative Blake Farenthold settled a suit using federal funds.

Lawmakers, beware! This scandal is exhibiting an eerie resemblance to another scandal that transformed U.S. politics not so long ago.

QuickTake Q&A: What Sexual Harassment Is and Isn't

In September 1991, the Government Accounting Office reported that members of the House of Representatives had written 8,331 bad checks on their institution’s “bank” -- actually more of a financial clearinghouse -- and paid no penalty, with the institution covering the shortfall for errant depositors.

The Democrats, led by House Speaker Thomas Foley, tried to make the matter go away. Foley had the House sergeant at arms print “letters of exoneration” to permit those with clean records to claim to their constituents that they hadn’t done anything wrong, hoping that this would protect his congressional majority. In October, Foley declared, “This is now a matter that is over.”

The Republican Gang of Seven had other ideas. This group of insurgent Republicans -- Newt Gingrich of Georgia, John Boehner of Ohio, and others eager to wrest control of the House from the Democrats — jumped on the check-kiting scandal. 

“We don’t know what happened,” declared Boehner that fall. “But I don’t think you can restore trust in our institution by taking our dirt and sweeping it under the carpet.”

This was playing with fire; Republicans had also bounced checks. Gingrich, it turned out, had dozens of them, including one made out to the Internal Revenue Service for $9,463.

But the young radicals shrewdly bet that public outrage over the special privileges enjoyed by House members would disproportionately hurt the Democrats. They also bet that if voters punished anyone, it would be the party in power. Democrats, who had controlled the House since 1952, were ripe for a fall.

Over that winter, Gingrich and the other renegade Republicans pushed for full disclosure of all offenders. Opinion polls tended to ratify this strategy: One found that two-thirds of voters would cast a ballot against anyone who bounced as few as 10 checks. A comparable proportion favored “prosecution” for serial offenders who had written “many” bad checks.

As the Republicans turned up the heat, Foley faced growing pressure to release the names of everyone who had written bad checks. Eventually, he relented, and the names of the offenders became public in several stages, beginning with a short list of the worst offenders. A whopping 81 percent of these serial offenders were Democrats. Indeed, when all the names became public, only 33 percent of Democrats had a blemish-free record of check writing, but 48 percent of Republicans did.

The scandal had immediate repercussions. Some of the politicians touched by the scandal opted not to run for re-election in 1992; others went down in flames in the primary season. Still more perished in the general election in November. In the end, Democrats lost nine seats. 

After controlling for other variables like redistricting, an academic study of the election found that the scandal had “a significant effect on the probability of exit” and that the greater the number of bad checks written, the higher the probability that the representative would leave.

More consequential, perhaps, was the fact that the scandal elevated a new cohort of Republican leaders in the House. It was these same individuals, including Gingrich and Boehner, who would lead their caucus to a stunning victory in the midterm elections of 1994, wresting control of 54 seats from the Democrats and taking control of the House.

The sexual harassment scandal taking shape in both chambers of Congress now has put many of the same dynamics into play. Then, as now, there’s a sense that politicians get privileges -- taxpayer-funded hush money -- that ordinary voters don’t enjoy. And like the banking scandal, this is most definitely a bipartisan problem. And Democrats, now in the minority, are willing to sacrifice members of their own party to seize the moral high ground.

While there’s no evidence at this point that Republicans are more guilty than Democrats of sexual misconduct, one thing is indisputable: Women represent a much greater percentage of the total Democratic caucus than they do the Republicans. In the House, Republican women represent a mere 8.7 percent of the party caucus. Democratic women, by contrast, represent 32 percent.

In popular perception, sexual harassment is framed as a male problem. In this respect, then, the ruling Republican Party is peculiarly vulnerable. Add the fact that President Donald Trump has boasted of sexually assaulting women, and been accused by numerous women of doing precisely what he bragged about doing, and the Republican Party begins to look weak on this issue.

That won’t affect the voting habits of die-hard Republicans; in fact, Republicans have told pollsters that they believe their party doesn’t have a sexual harassment problem, but that the Democrats do. (In the same poll, Democrats were likely to say that both parties have a problem in this department.) But Republican denial is hardly a winning strategy for getting out the vote, as recent events in Alabama would suggest.

So here’s a modest prediction grounded in recent history. If sexual harassment in Congress becomes a scandal comparable to the check-bouncing episode of the 1990s, with the Republicans viewed as the worst offenders, don’t be surprised if a handful of upstart women lead the Democratic Party to victory in the House, Senate, and perhaps the presidency itself.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Stephen Mihm at smihm1@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net

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