How Congress Has Handled Sex Scandals in the Past

Leeann Tweeden has reported that Senator Al Franken kissed and groped her without her consent in December 2006 while the two were traveling on a USO tour. The Senator has admitted to the allegations (but said that he remembers the kissing incident differently) and apologized.

In response, both Republicans and Democrats in the Senate have called for an ethics investigation. Some are suggesting that Franken should simply resign immediately. It’s still early in this story, so that might happen. But it is also important to take a look at how these kinds of things have historically been handled.

Back when the investigation into the charges against Bill Clinton was beginning, the Washington Post did a summary of the 21 congressional sex scandals since 1974. That list ended in 1994. Since then we can add David Vitter, Larry Craig and John Ensign to the list.

While the behavior that spurred the scandals over these years has varied from affairs to sexual assault to hiring prostitutes to lewd conduct in an airport bathroom, the response to allegations against a sitting member of Congress has always been to launch an ethics investigation. At times that has resulted in no change, and at times it has led to a resignation or the member of Congress losing the next election.

None of these situations completely mirrors the charges against Franken. But the one that comes the closest is the case of Sen. Bob Packwood. That one began in 1992 with a Washington Post story in which 10 women reported that he had sexually abused/assaulted them. Eventually 19 women came forward with accusations (as compared to the one woman who has come forward in the Franken case). Those charges were referred to the Senate Ethics Committee, which concluded by issuing a report detailing his sexual misconduct and obstruction of justice, along with a recommendation that he be expelled from the Senate. In response, Packwood resigned.

I thought it was important to review this history in order to point out that the process being proposed by both Democrats and Republicans is what we should expect in these kinds of situations. That is true even though the incident in question happened prior to Franken being elected to the Senate. I support this response because it is important for people to take the words of women seriously and thoroughly investigate their allegations. As a former employer, I have been in this situation and responded similarly.

It might also be helpful to point out that, unlike Donald Trump and Roy Moore, Al Franken hasn’t suggested that Leeann Tweeden is lying or accused her of being politically motivated. He has agreed that an investigation by the Ethics Committee is warranted and promised to cooperate.

I’ve seen some conservatives suggest that, according to the new standard, Franken should resign immediately. That completely overlooks the fact that a Republican who has been accused of sexual assault currently occupies the White House with no investigation underway. It has been suggested (mostly by Republicans) that Moore should drop out of his Senate race. But quite frankly, you’re not hearing that from many Democrats. If he were to stay in the race and win, the kind of ethics investigation that is being suggested for Franken would likely await him too.

Overall, what we’re seeing from the Democrats in this situation is in sharp contrast to what we saw from Republicans. It has been painfully obvious that sexual assault by men in power is not a partisan issue. But the response to these behaviors couldn’t be more different.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.