Opinion: A day of reckoning coming to Congress?

AP File Photo / J. Scott Applewhite

AP File Photo / J. Scott Applewhite

Al Franken's announcement Thursday that he will resign from the Senate may not be the beginning of the end of the story of powerful elected officials in Washington brought down by their bad behavior. It might not even be the end of the beginning.

The Minnesota Democrat finally stepped down after another woman alleged he'd forcibly tried to kiss her more than a decade ago, a story strikingly similar to the one told about him by Leeann Tweeden that started all this. Since Tweeden came forward, Reps. John Conyers, D-Mich. , and Trent Franks, R-Ariz. , have said they will also leave amid scandal. Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas , has said he won't seek re-election and Reps. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas , and Ruben Kihuen, D-Nevada , are trying to hang on despite facing allegations .

Now consider this:

and this response:

We previously learned that Congress has quietly spent millions of tax dollars over the past couple of decades to settle sexual-harassment claims against members. If the number really tops 30 or 40, or frankly even 20, this may come to rival the House banking scandal in the early 1990s, which included 22 members (including Conyers!) and helped set the stage* for the Republican Revolution in 1994. Like the current scandal, that one was a bipartisan affair. But, importantly for our current politics, it was mostly a problem for the party in power.

Since we ought not to speculate on who personally might be on that list of 20, or 30, or 40, let's instead think through the bigger picture. It seems to me there are three main possibilities:

  1. The vast majority on the list are Democrats.
  2. The vast majority are Republicans.
  3. It's a truly mixed bag.

The first possibility could torpedo the Democrats' increasingly promising chances of retaking the House next year. The second would all but seal the GOP's fate.

The third is probably not good for the GOP, either, since it would fuel an anti-incumbent sentiment that is bound to hurt the majority party. Keep in mind that, in the case of the banking scandal, 22 members were implicated but the 1994 elections saw 77 members lose their seats. Unless it's a mix of only Democrats from competitive districts and Republicans in safe seats, it's hard to see how that third scenario would play out well for the GOP -- particularly when they have Roy Moore and Donald Trump to explain to voters.

Let's also add this: According to this source , there are 84 women serving in the House, and 62 of them are Democrats. While it's certainly not impossible for a woman to commit sexual harassment, I think we all can agree this tends to be much more of a male problem (Jennifer Aniston's character in "Horrible Bosses" notwithstanding). So the lower percentage of women on the Republican side only increases the likelihood this will eventually hurt the GOP more.

And of course, we are only talking about the House here. The Senate is in play next year, too.

We'll have to see how it all shakes out. But despite the headlines so far being mostly about prominent Democrats (Conyers and Franken) and liberals in Hollywood, the media and the arts, I wouldn't crow too much if I were a Republican. A story of rot in Washington is very unlikely to end well for the party in power.


*The banking scandal's electoral impact was a bit delayed, as it broke in 1992 but the real effects weren't felt until 1994. But 1992 was also a presidential-election year -- and a good one for Democrats -- and the mid-terms are more ripe for backlash to this sort of thing. Not to mention, after almost 40 years of the Democrats being in charge, it took a ferocious anti-incumbent mood to oust them. In the present case, we're already in a mid-term cycle and the GOP isn't as firmly entrenched. Plus, everything seems to move more quickly these days.