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Congressional Scandals

Dennis Hastert was elected as the 59th Speaker of the House of Representatives, second in line to the presidency. In 2006 critics demanded his resignation for allegedly looking the other way when evidence surfaced implicating Rep. Mark Foley in improprieties?

History suggests that different generations of Americans would reach different conclusions. "What is scandalous in one decade" says Shelley Ross, author of Fall from Grace, "is business as usual in another." "In 1832," she writes, "Representative William Stanbery (D-Ohio) was censured merely for suggesting that the House Speaker's eyes might be 'too frequently turned from the chair you occupy toward the White House.' But forty years later, when Representative James A. Garfield (R-Ohio) admitted accepting stock from Credit Mobilier of America at a time when the company needed legislative favors, he not only escaped censure, he was elected president."

In 1838 Kentucky Rep. William Jordan Graves (Whig), a protege of Henry Clay, shot and killed Maine Rep. Jonathan Cilley (Dem.) in a duel. Ministers from the pulpit denounced dueling and demanded that Graves be punished. He was censured but not expelled.

In 1856 Rep. Preston Brooks (D-SC) beat Sen. Charles Sumner (R-MA) with a gutta-percha cane. The blows rained down on Sumner's head as he tried but failed to stand up from his desk on the floor of the Senate. With the whiff of civil war in the air the House could not settle on a punishment. Brooks resigned but then took office again after a quick election. (A few months later he died of liver failure.)

In the 20th century Congress infamously faced scandals involving both sex and money. In 1980 eight members of Congress were implicated in the Abscam scandal; many were caught on videotape accepting cash bribes of up to $50,000 from a phony Arab sheik. Sen. Harrison Williams (D-NJ) refused to resign until it became clear he would be expelled. Four of the members of Congress convicted of bribery resigned; one had to be expelled. Congressman Jack Murtha (D-PA) escaped punishment when he agreed to cooperate with prosecutors.

Rep. CraneRep. Studds Two members of Congress were accused in the early 1980s of having sex with pages. Rep. Gerry Studds (D-MA) held a news conference with the 17 year old male page he was involved with and refused to apologize, saying the affair involved two consenting adults. Studds was censured by the House but re-elected by his constituents. Rep. Daniel Crane (R-IL) admitted having sex with a female page and apologized. He was also censured by the House but subsequently was voted out of office.

Two speakers have been forced from office after becoming enmeshed in scandals, both in the last generation. In 1989 Speaker Jim Wright (D-TX) was forced to resign after the House Ethics Committee concluded he had improperly earned thousands of dollars in bogus book royalties after he arranged for special interests to buy up copies of his vanity press book, Reflections of a Public Man. The man behind the investigation was Newt Gingrich (R-GA). In 1997 Gingrich, who became Speaker in 1995 after the Republicans took control of Congress, was himself accused of violating House ethics after it was disclosed that he had taken tax-free donations for teaching a course used to promote the fortunes of the Republican Party. (Gingrich was found to have misled the House Ethics Committee about the involvement of his Republican pac in the development of the course.) Ordered to pay a $300,000 fine, he subsequently resigned from office after heavy Republican losses in the 1998 elections.

In 1999 Rep. Dennis Hastert (R-IL) was elected Speaker after Rep. Bob Livingston (R-LA) tearfully confessed to a stunned House of Representatives that he had cheated on his wife. The confession followed the failed Republican attempt to remove President Bill Clinton from office in the wake of the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

Related Links

  • Rick Shenkman: Foley off to Rehab ... The Oldest Story in the Modern Pol's Playbook

  • Joseph Califano, Jr.: When the House Could Clean Itself

  • Paul Farhi: Republicans have a harder time surviving sex scandals than Democrats

  • Philip Terzian: A new page in an old book