Congressional resignations were prompted this session by baring a chest on Craigslist, tweeting sexually inappropriate photos, an extramarital affair, a tiger suit and — most recently — the leak of an embarrassing television script.
"It's not just bad behavior, it's bizarre behavior," says Jessica Taylor, an analyst for the non-partisan Rothenberg Political Report. Five of the eight lawmakers who resigned exited under an ethical cloud brought on by personal behavior outside the realm of elected office.
Their resignations are an indicator of a political climate in which the public's poor view of Congress is fueling little tolerance in either party for collectively weathering an individual lawmaker's personal failing.
"Congress is endlessly entertaining, but when you have the average voter concerned about jobs, the economy and health care, and you see these antics in Congress, it certainly doesn't help boost confidence in the institution," Taylor says. Congress got a 17% approval rating in a June Gallup poll.
Resignations in this Congress include:
•Rep. Thaddeus McCotter, R-Mich., resigned July 6 shortly after a lowbrow television pilot script he had authored was leaked to the media by a former aide. McCotter had already failed to qualify for the ballot in November, and his campaign operation is under investigation by the state attorney general for how they handled his petition filing.
•Rep. Chris Lee, R-N.Y., left in the early weeks of this Congress in February 2011, after a shirtless picture he posted of himself on Craigslist and a number of flirtatious e-mails he exchanged with a woman who was not his wife were published by Gawker.
•Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., resigned in April 2011 amid an ethics probe into an extramarital affair he conducted with a woman who was a family friend and whose husband was an Ensign staffer.
•Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., resigned in June 2011 following a media firestorm over explicit tweets of himself he had sent to women online. Weiner is married.
•Rep. David Wu, D-Ore., resigned in August 2011 following allegations of sexually assaulting a campaign donor's teenage daughter and a string of media reports chronicling odd behavior that included a photograph of him wearing a tiger suit that went viral online.
Ron Bonjean, a GOP communications strategist who served as spokesman for former House speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., says the intolerance is a lingering effect from the ethical scandals of 2005-06 that saw the resignation of four Republican lawmakers — including House Majority Leader Tom DeLay — and tagged Congress with a "culture of corruption" that helped Democrats sweep to power that November.
"The bad apples that would usually stay or stick around are thrown out," Bonjean says. "After the scandals the Congress has had over the past couple years, there's just no appetite for lawmakers with politically destructive behavior to linger."
The zero tolerance extends only to personal ethics, as members who are under an ethics cloud for allegations pertaining to their official duties do not face similar pressure to exit.